Most people go the entire winter in Northern New England without seeing a single reptile or amphibian, but those that do almost always find them in the same place: their basement. Usually the culprit is a Spotted Salamander, but the list of species that turn up in people’s basements is endless.  In many ways, basements replicate the below-ground crevices and cavities these animals seek to avoid harsh winter temperatures, but can also trap them and may be too dry for them to survive for very long. So, while basements might seem like a good place to a reptile or amphibian to endure the colder months, they can also function as ecological traps. 

Basement Milksnake by Jack Dugdale
To learn that the first living reptile or amphibian to be reported in Vermont this year was an Eastern Milksnake that turned up in someone's basement on January 5 was still a bit of a surprise as the species is not usually seen for at least a month after the first amphibians emerge in the early spring. Photo by Jack Dugdale.

During the winter, any animal that would normally head underground to avoid freezing temperatures might end up in a basement and think they hit the jackpot. The area will be cold, but above freezing, and may have lots of places to hide. If the basement has some damp spots, it may be enough for a salamander to endure the winter and crawl its way back out in the spring in great shape. Basements with rock walls and dirt floors are especially attractive as they not only tend to be damp, but also have lots of ways in and out. New basements that are well-drained and dry, however, might attract just as many amphibians, but don’t provide an easy way out or proper conditions for survival.

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
Spotted Salamanders are the species most often found in people's basements in Northern New England, such as this one photographed by Marvin Smith.

So, what should you do if you find one of these critters in your basement? If temperatures outside are expected to remain above freezing for a few days or so and the ground isn’t covered in snow, the simple answer is just release the salamander, snake, or whatever else you’ve got outside as near to the house as possible, but ideally in the woods. For salamanders, place them next to something they can hide under and provide some moisture if you can’t find a nice damp spot for release. If, like me, you live in Northern New England where temperatures are well below freezing most of the winter and snow might cover the ground for months on end, it can be a bit more complicated. For people with old dirt floor basements and stone foundations, you could just leave the snake or salamander there and let it find its own way out in the spring. For others, who either have very dry or inescapable basements, and those who don’t want snakes and salamanders loose in their house, there are a couple options. In the case of salamanders and frogs, providing a cool damp environment will be critical to their survival. Laws and guidelines vary from state to state, so please consult your state fish and wildlife agency for specific guidance. Finding a licensed rehabilitator to care for the animal for the rest of the winter may be the only legal option for many people. The reasons for this are numerous, but one of the most serious considerations is that if people keep wild amphibians in captivity they can be exposed to diseases they may transmit back to their wild counterparts, especially if other reptiles or amphibians have been kept on-site in the past. 

Creepy Basement by Jen Dubin
Older basements with lots of cracks and crevices, such as this one, are more susceptible to entry by small animals such as snakes and salamanders.

More crucially, if your basement is not a good spot for salamanders or if you don’t like the idea of sharing your house with them and other animals, sealing your basement to prevent their entry is the best way to go. Cracks, drain holes, or gaps around basement doors are their primary means of entry. Also be sure to check window wells if you have them, because if an amphibian can get into a window well it may not be able to get back out unless you provide a means of escape. 

mumified salamander
Unfortunately for amphibians, most basements do not have enough moisture for them to survive and they may not be able to escape before desiccating, such as this one photographed by Malcolm J.

Winter in Northern New England is certainly a dry-spell for most herpetologists, and unfortunately, on the rare occasions we do have a chance to see a reptile or amphibian this time of year, it is because the animal is likely in trouble. A basement might seem like a good place to hang out in the eyes of these animals, but when they venture into new or well-maintained basements it’s likely to be a one-way trip, so finding ways to prevent reptiles and amphibians from ever getting into a basement to begin with is a great step toward helping these remarkable animals survive the winter.

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