As a kid growing up at the south end of Lake Champlain, I spent many evenings fishing for perch down at the bay below my house. I’d picked up snake and frog wrangling as a side hobby pretty early on and by the time I was 8 or 9 thought I knew the name of every animal you could find under a log (the underside of logs being my preferred place to restock on night crawlers). I’d find the occasional Spotted Salamander during my frequent quests for night crawlers, but one spring I found an animal that really opened my eyes to the biological diversity of the landscape around me, which had always seemed so normal up until then. It was April, I believe, when I flipped over a board in the nearby swamp and found something peculiar. I thought for a moment I’d found a spotless Spotted Salamander, but upon closer inspection I started to see other oddities and ran home with a fist full of dirt and a squirming salamander to get my Peterson’s field guide as fast as I could.
There were a few species or so in my book that looked similar, but only a couple had ranges extending into the Champlain Valley, and only one of those had the same bright blue speckles all over its sides like the one in my hand: the Blue-spotted Salamander. Today Blue-spotted Salamanders remain one of my absolute favorite amphibians. There is something about their short rounded faces, near jet-black skin, vibrant blue markings, and affinity for spring rains that I find quite endearing. My home in the southern Champlain Valley, as it turns out, was right in the heart of Blue-spotted Salamander territory and contains some of the largest populations of the species in the world. While the species does breed in vernal pools, they also breed in and are highly associated with floodplain wetlands, cedar swamps, and clayplain forests, which pretty much sums up the Champlain Valley. One site, about half an hour from where I found that first one as a kid, has Blue-spotted Salamander breeding migrations most springs where you can go out on a rainy night and find hundreds, if not over 1,000 of them crossing a small stretch of road in only a couple hours.
Like most other closely-related salamanders in the northeast, Blue-spotted Salamanders breed in the early spring and are quite varied in how they spend the rest of the year. Most forage and overwinter in forests uphill from the breeding wetlands, but others remain in the lowlands through most or all of the year, depending on where feeding, breeding, and overwintering habitats are in proximity to each other. Unlike Spotted Salamanders, though, they do not lay easily visible egg masses, instead laying eggs individually attached to leaves and other debris, which makes egg mass surveys a less effective means of sampling Blue-spotted Salamanders (except in places where they hybridize with Jefferson Salamanders, but that’s a complicated story I’ll save for later).
In Vermont, where Orianne’s Great Northern Forests Initiative is based, it was believed for many years that Blue-spotted Salamanders were only found in the Champlain Basin (especially the lowlands) and the Southern Connecticut River Valley, but in recent reports broke those beliefs. Starting around the year 2000, some reports of Blue-spotted Salamanders started trickling in from a remote Wildlife Management Area in the Northeast Kingdom. Ideal habitat for Blue-spotted Salamanders is scarce or lacking throughout much of the kingdom, so to find a population in the heart of the kingdom in an area thick with spruce/fir forests came as quite a surprise. At about that same time, a report came in from another nearby town, but reports of the species from those two places were few and far between until just a few years ago when someone found larger numbers of Blue-spotted Salamanders during the breeding season at the WMA. Shortly afterwards, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service found twenty-two crossing a road in the town of Canaan, the most northeastern town in Vermont, right on the Canadian border and a full 40+ miles from the other two kingdom populations.
These isolated Northeast Kingdom populations, along with a couple others in Northern New Hampshire, still have us herpetologists scratching our heads a little. Jim Andrews, who runs the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, has suspected ever since those early reports almost 20 years ago there must be other populations of Blue-spotted Salamanders tucked away in small pockets of the Northeast Kingdom, and that’s something we at the Orianne Society aim to help figure out. While the extent and scope of our vernal pool and amphibian conservation efforts are in development, we are going to start by focusing our upcoming “Places You’ve Never Herped” event right in the heart of the Northeast Kingdom on the very same property where the first kingdom Blue-spotted Salamanders were found almost two decades ago.
Because Blue-spotted Salamanders don’t lay prominent egg masses, we will actively search the area for the adults and set traps in potential breeding habitat in an effort to document the distribution of the species at Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area. If weather allows (we want evening rain) we will also venture out at night to search for them on roads in neighboring areas in hopes of finding them on properties and in towns where they have never been documented. While we fully expect to find Blue-spotted Salamanders somewhere on the property during the event, nobody knows how strong the population is, nor how widespread, so how many we find and in which places will add a lot to our existing knowledge of the species in this remote part of the state where the species, along with other reptiles and amphibians, are poorly documented.
I do hope you will consider registering for Places You’ve Never Herped, which takes place April 21-22. As always with these events, our goal is not only to have fun, but teach people about the spectacular places reptiles and amphibians live and learn new information about the very animals we are in search for. Victory Basin truly is a gem and I look forward to spending a couple days combing its wetlands in search of a variety of reptiles and amphibians and I cannot think of a better way to spend our first event in Vermont than by shedding a little light on the mystery of the Northeast Kingdom Blue-spotted Salamanders.
The event is free to Orianne Society Members, and becoming a member is very easy! Head over here for more information: http://www.oriannesociety.org/news/pnyh-12-vermont