The Four-toed Salamander

Views:

699 views

The day I turned 16 my mother made it clear that my days of being chauffeured around to look for frogs and snakes were at an end. If I wanted to hang out in some random swamp, I’d need to get my license and drive myself. A few months later, freshly minted license in hand, I hit the road in my ’92 Subaru Legacy, sporting an “I Brake for Salamanders” bumper sticker. The Spotted Salamanders I was accustomed to seeing around my house are easy to find on the road on rainy spring nights, but I would soon learn that some salamanders are simply too small to see from a car, and you can’t brake for a salamander that you can’t see.

If carefully turned over, a Four-toed Salamander's belly is bright white with black polka dots, unlike any other Salamander within their range. Photo by Toby Alexander.

Considered by some as a crown jewel of nighttime road searches, the Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) tops off around 3 inches and is thinner than a pencil. Their reddish-brown backs are textured with thin grooves and speckled with black flecks, making them difficult to see, even from just a few feet away. Like many other salamanders, their tails easily break off to distract predators, but Four-toed Salamanders have a constriction at the base of their tails that acts as a sort of quick-release point (sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘tear here’ spot). While most salamanders have four toes on their front feet, the Four-toed Salamander also has four toes on their back feet rather than the usual five. Despite their name, counting their tiny toes is not a very handy way to identify the species. If in doubt about the ID, try flipping the salamander over. The Four-toed Salamanders’ bright white belly with black polka dots is unmistakable. 

Found in hardwood forests across much of the eastern United States, the Four-toed Salamander has an affinity for sphagnum moss. In the spring, they leave their rocky woodland habitat to nest in mosses above water. When the eggs hatch, the larvae wriggle downward until reaching the water. While it is somewhat easy for an experienced herpetologist to identify their habitat, finding a Four-toed Salamander is often easier said than done. 

Four-toed Salamanders are sometimes mistake for Red-backed Salamanders. In this photo shows both species found under the same log. In this case, the Four-toed Salamanders are smaller, but when full grown the two species are similar in size. Photo by Kiley Briggs.

Even in places where they are common, few people ever see Four-toed Salamanders. For example, there is a site in the Lake Champlain Valley where the public is invited to assist with an annual salamander count on a rural road on rainy spring nights. It is somewhat common to find 200 or more Four-toed Salamanders over the course of a couple hours, which is quite incredible. I’m not aware of any other place in the world where that many Four-toed Salamanders can be found with such ease, yet residents who live nearby almost never encounter the species.

My driver’s license was practically still warm the first time I participated in the salamander count. After parking my car and catching up with the “crossing guards” on foot, I asked the guy in charge where all the action was. He politely told me I was standing on it and pointed his flashlight at my feet. Sure enough, I was standing within inches of two Four-toed Salamanders. This experience really opened my eyes to the fact that no matter how close you pay attention or how slow you drive, you’re not going to see most Four-toed Salamanders from a moving car. 

Dedicated parents, female Four-toed Salamanders lay their eggs in moss, a few inches or so above water, and will stay with their eggs until they hatch. Photo by Kiley Briggs.

The public salamander count takes place on a rural dirt road where only one or two cars pass through during the event, so roadkill there is fairly minimal. A nearby site is an entirely different story, and the amount of frog and salamander roadkill there used to be staggering. Time was limited for the Four-toed, Blue-spotted, and Jefferson Salamanders at that site until concerned citizens helped the town get a grant to design and install Vermont’s first amphibian underpass. Today, roadkill there is practically a non-issue, and thousands of frogs and salamanders (Four-toeds included) make their way safely to and from their breeding wetland every year by passing under the road. Larger wildlife uses the underpass too!

Looking for frogs and salamanders crossing roads on rainy spring nights has gained popularity in recent years (where it is legal). The spring migrations are a great way for people to learn about and see local wildlife. Yet, it is important to be aware of the impact driving around to look for salamanders has on the salamanders themselves. Well-intentioned as we may be, searching for amphibians by driving on rainy spring nights kills some of the very animals we are looking for. A chonky Spotted Salamander in the middle of a paved road might be the first clue you have that you’re at a good spot to stop and look around, but there is a good chance you drove right by, or over, dozens of salamanders too small to see from a car before finally spotting a big one. I’m by no means saying that everybody should stay home on those rainy nights, but it is important to be aware of the issue and weigh the educational, inspirational, or conservation benefits against the risk to amphibians. Increasingly, I choose to stay home or travel the shortest possible distance to a place where I can search for salamanders on foot. 

Witnessing amphibian migrations on rainy spring nights can be a life changing experience, but we need to keep in mind that finding driving to a good spot to see frogs and salamanders often results in additional roadkill, especially of small species that are difficult to spot from a moving vehicle. Photo by Chris Slesar.

Because Four-toed Salamanders are so rarely noticed by humans, it is important to report any you see, regardless of how you find them. Depending on where you live, a local herp atlas or state wildlife agency will be the best place to report sightings of Four-toed Salamanders (and other species). Alternatively, apps such as HerpMapper or iNaturalist are good ways to report sightings too. Reporting roadkill is especially helpful because, over time, when roadkill hotspots become apparent, state transportation and wildlife agencies can use that information to plan future conservation projects. Vermont’s first amphibian underpass would never have happened if someone hadn’t reported their observations and put that site on the radar of conservationists. 

A few spots in the Lake Champlain Valley are true hotspots for Four-toed Salamanders. Here, seven were found under a single small rock. Photo by Kiley Briggs.

Spoiled by living so close to Four-toed Salamander hotspots in my hometown, I didn’t fully appreciate how special it is to have an encounter with the species. Most herpers I know consider themselves lucky to see several a year. In Vermont, outside of the Champlain Valley, they are extremely difficult to find. Each year, bit by bit, reports from other areas trickle into the inbox of Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. Out of all of the reptiles and amphibians we have here, I suspect the atlas maps for the Four-toed Salamanders are the least complete. A blank on the map doesn’t necessarily mean a species is absent from a given town. In the case of Four-toed Salamanders, it’s just as likely they are there, but nobody has noticed, let alone reported one.