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Oct 14, 2019 1:37 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Salamander Encounters

Four-toed salamander; the arrow points to the constriction where it loses its tail when threatened. MIKE BOTTINI
Oct 17, 2019 10:13 AM

Earlier this month, while South Fork Natural History Museum president Andy Sabin was leading a field trip in Montauk in search of blue-spotted and four-toed salamanders, I was pulling up weeds in my backyard in Springs.

While yanking up a clump of grass growing through a piece of weed-block fabric, I noticed an odd, inch-long, slender creature thrashing like crazy in the uprooted clump. One side was orange-colored, the other white, both sparsely covered with small black flecks.

No legs or head were evident. Fishing it out of the grass and placing it in the palm of my hand, I was looking at a thin piece of flesh wider at one end and tapering to a point at the other, and wriggling around in a quite energetic fashion.

I was quite puzzled at first, and then realized I was staring at the tail of a four-toed salamander! When threatened by a potential predator, this species will cast off, or autotomize, its entire tail from a point on its body where there is an obvious constriction (see photo). The separated tail undulates wildly, distracting the predator while the salamander escapes. Quickly pulling up the weed-block fabric, I searched for the now tail-less animal, but its ruse had worked perfectly: it had made a clean getaway into one of many burrows in the area.

It also secretes a distasteful substance from its skin to deter predators. This is not a very common species on Long Island, so I notified several “herp” colleagues, including Andy, and included photos of the tail which they verified as being that of a four-toed. According to “The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State,” this species has a very patchy distribution here and throughout its range in eastern North America, with many isolated, or disjunct populations.

I decided to survey the closest nature preserve, a tupelo and red maple swamp with patches of sphagnum moss that this species prefers to use for egg laying, to see if I could document more four-toeds in the area. Although they lay their eggs in early spring, as is the case with most of our salamanders, fall is their season for mating. Courtship takes place on land. Sperm are transferred by way of a tiny (1/10th inch) spermatophore deposited on the ground by the male, picked up by the female and stored in her cloaca until spring.

She lays 20 to 50 eggs in a small depression most often in sphagnum moss, but also in grass hummocks or rotting logs and leaves. In all cases, the nest is 2 to 6 inches above freshwater so that when hatched the larvae can fall directly into the water and begin its aquatic larval stage. Females will stay at the nest site for the duration of the one- to two-month incubation period.

Its common name derives from the fact that its front and hind feet have four toes, unlike most of our native salamanders that have four toes on the front feet but five on the hinds. Good luck counting toes to distinguish this species from others. Even with the aid of a hand lens, I find that it is difficult to discern all four or five toes among our native salamanders, as at least one toe on each foot is a tiny stump that’s easily overlooked.

An easier and very reliable identifying feature of the four-toed is its white belly covered with small black flecks. My search did not turn up any four-toeds, but I did find a half-dozen individuals of our most common salamander: the Eastern red-backed salamander. This species has two color morphs: one with a thick, red-colored stripe down its back and upper tail; the other lacking that stripe and being a uniform dark gray to black on its topsides. Here on Long Island, we have both variants, with the latter being more common on the East End and the red morph more prevalent farther west.

As with the four-toed, this species can also lose its tail and emit a distasteful secretion from its skin when threatened. It is also a forest inhabitant, but does not require wet soils or water in its territory. It also mates in fall and lays its eggs on land, but in summer, and not necessarily near water. Its three to 17 eggs are laid in a grape-like cluster in a cavity under a log, and also guarded by the female for the one month incubation period. There is no aquatic larval stage; the hatchlings resemble miniature adults and begin foraging in the leaf litter.

Both are important members of the forest soil community, feeding on small mites, beetles, fly larvae and earthworms. Research in New York has shown that the red-backed salamander comprises more biomass in the forest ecosystem than any other vertebrate. Weighing in at 0.018 ounces per large adult, that’s amazing when you consider that it takes 90,000 individuals to equal one 100-pound deer!

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