The Year of the Salamander and Natural Heritage Education

April 10th, 2014 by Ontario Parks Leave a reply »

 In an age when kids are so plugged in to technology, Mother Nature can be the de-stressor a child needs to lead a healthy life. 

 Natural Heritage Education (NHE) programs at Ontario Parks teach kids to appreciate and respect nature. The hands-on, entertaining activities offered every summer are free with a valid day or overnight Ontario Parks permit. Best of all, they’re led by qualified staff who understands the area’s ecology.  Use the Park Locator on the Ontario Parks web site to locate parks with NHE programming.  

Spotted Salamander in Algonquin Provincial Park.

David Legros is the NHE leader at Algonquin Provincial Park. Beginning as a Laurentian University MSc graduate, David has been involved with the Bat Lake Inventory of Spotted Salamanders (BLISS) in Algonquin Provincial Park. This project is slated to become the largest salamander monitoring project in North America. It operates on a shoestring budget and is coordinated by Patrick Moldowan, an MSc Biology Candidate at Laurentian University. *  Glenn Tattersall, a Professor at Brock University, officially began the BLISS project in 2008 and has been instrumental in supporting students throughout the salamander study.

 Salamanders are great predictors of a forest’s health. Many are threatened worldwide so conservationists have named 2014 the Year of the Salamander. Spring is when salamanders migrate in Algonquin Provincial Park. This wonderful story from the point-of-view of a male salamander takes place during spring migration and breeding. It was written by Patrick Moldowan and inspired by NHE leader, David LeGros (who is not an amourous salamander). 

 

The Harbinger of Spring, the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).

Written by Patrick Moldowan, Laurentian University

 

When people think of great migrations what often comes to mind? The journey of wildebeest across the Serengeti or the oceanic transit of neotropical birds, perhaps?

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) migration at Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park.

Salamanders, so unassuming, are easily overlooked. Now imagine: you are 10cm long, have short and stout limbs, and crawl on your belly. Your skin is wet, sticky and porous. For the past six months you have called a rotted tree root hollow or maybe an abandoned rodent burrow a comfortable overwinter retreat. Safe below the frost line and in pitch-black darkness it is not food that you have on your mind, but rather a mate. Somewhere in the freshly thawed forest there is an alluring pond. You must travel almost a kilometre through the prickly spruce underbrush, the next generation depends on it. Finally, the subzero days are no longer, but the frigid nights still persist. Timing is everything. Too early and you risk freezing. Too late and you have missed your opportunity. At first rain you will move. Over mountainous patches of snow, among luxurious mossy beds and under the downed trunk of a once towering pine toppled during the last winter storm of the season. You are not the only one on the move. Your smaller brethren, a Redback, is at the surface too. There will probably be a large turnout this spring. The fall rains provided great feeding opportunities and you have plenty of fat reserves remaining after winter. How long will the journey take? Four nights, maybe five.  You are lucky to be one of the few beasts braving the cold. Although you must not be too complacent, predators are in hiding. That poison sequestered in your skin can only get you so far. Any predator foolhardy enough to take a bite will get an oozing dose of the concoction, but still some have figured their way around it.

. . .

As you continue to approach the pond the chorus is deafening. Ah, the Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs made good time, with their long legs and all. The call of frogs across the landscape seems extra conspicuous given the dead of winter that immediately preceded their reanimation. Overzealous they are . . .

Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park during spring thaw.

It is getting late and the moon is climbing high. The first plunge into Bat Lake always feels like a shock to the system. It might just be the cold, or perhaps the promise of another year ahead. It feels like home. While the days of gills are long past as you recount on the summer you spent hidden amongst the mud, dropped Leatherleaf and Labrador Tea leaves and thick shoreline moss.  You were yet to earn your spots in the wide world that lay beyond the water’s edge. The slick shelled swimmers, trap jaw monsters, and lightning fast jabbers were always something to be wary of. These dangers have not entirely passed.

Spotted Salamander sperm garden at Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park.

 

There is little time to waste. It may only be a night before mates arrive, all weather pending. And so you settle in. A submerged mossy hummock gently sloping down from the shoreline: this is it. A broken Leatherleaf stem is just the centerpiece for the occasion. You dread this part. You have never prided yourself as a landscaper, but you set to work nonetheless.  There is no use wasting time now. Ah, this patch of moss will do, and that submerged snag.  Piece-by-piece your perfectly manicured sperm garden comes together, not a spermatophore out of place. You finish with not a moment to spare. From the shallows you spy a pair of beady eyes staring back at you. Slipping ever-so-gracefully into the water a female appears and begins to investigate your efforts. She is taking her time, a good sign. She circles. Is she playing coy? Alright chap, it is time to impress. Some nuzzling, a tail wag and straddling ensues in an effort to further interest the female.  It has been a long winter. Are you sure that you still have it? Round and round the garden, she is keeping you guessing. It turns into a game of follow-the-leader as you take the front and guide her to the middle of the garden as she gingerly walks over a few spermatophores before freezing in place. She crouches.  Ever so slowly she aligns and gently taps the base of her tail against the gelatinous capsule. With little hesitation the spermatophore disappears into her reproductive tract. The female takes a few steps forward and picks up another.  A sigh of relief, you’ve still got it. The female doubles back around and returns your nudges. As she turns tail and heads toward the thick leaf litter bed you follow. It has been a long overland trek for her tonight; she will lay her eggs tomorrow. In a flash of spots you both disappear in synchrony.

 

 The early spring wake-up paid its dividends.

Spotted Salamander egg mass.

. . .

*The BLISS project would like to thank our many student volunteers, the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station (visit  http://www.algonquinwrs.ca/ to learn more about Algonquin wildlife and their study), and the support of Ontario Parks. Tax-deductible donations to support the the Algonquin salamander research project can be made to the Friends of Algonquin Park (http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/foap/donate/) by clearly indicating support of the Bat Lake salamander project.

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