Seeking Salamanders with SoFo


Blue-spotted Salamander

by Annette Hinkle

This is salamander season on the East End and in recent weeks, Jim Ash, executive director of the South Fork Natural History Society, has been checking ice conditions on ponds and monitoring rain events, all in preparation for SoFo’s salamander outings. The next scheduled walk is Saturday night when, conditions permitting, Ash will lead participants on a search for the blue-spotted salamander in Montauk.

“The program consists of going out at night, preferably a rainy night, or soon after it has rained, so salamanders have moved into vernal ponds,” explains Ash who, by his own calculations, has been sneaking up on salamanders for the last 30 years or so. “We approach the pond, our nature educators will go in with a light, dip in and try to find some.”

“You have to wade up quietly, and be quick with the net if they’re there,” he adds.

And if they’re there is the ultimate question. Conditions must be just right to find salamanders. Ponds must be relatively ice free, and there has to have been a recent heavy rain which triggers salamanders to migrate from below ground, where they live, to the ponds, where they breed.

“We have to reschedule if it doesn’t rain,” says Ash. “By Wednesday before, we have to start checking the ponds. That’s why it’s so important for people to register for these walks, so we can call them if it doesn’t happen.”

“Their reproductive cycle is tied to water,” says Ash. “Males first deposit spermataphore, packets of sperm, then the females come in and after courting, the female picks up the packet and the eggs are fertilized internally.”

The four species of mole salamanders found on the South Fork —the spotted, blue-spotted, marbled and tiger — prefer vernal ponds for egg laying because they dry up in summer and have no fish in them. But the transitory nature of vernal ponds has caused salamanders on Long Island to face another, more insidious threat to their survival.

“These ephemeral wetlands are considered to be of no importance. People say, ‘That used to be a pond, let’s build on it.’ But they are very important for these animals,” says Ash who points to the Coram area which once was a haven for the tiger salamander, which is now an endangered species. “Go around there now, and you see that habitat has been destroyed.”

Bridgehampton, where SoFo is headquartered, now has the largest concentration of tiger salamanders in the state. On Long Island, the blue-spotted salamander, the target of this weekend’s outing, occurs only in Montauk. Ash notes that it’s probably the only population in the entire state that is genetically pure.

“The blue-spotted salamander arrived here soon after the glaciers left, and became isolated when the ice melted,” he explains. “There were blue spotted and Jefferson salamanders on the mainland, and they hybridized.”

That salamander was named the Tremblay and considered a distinct species, until it was determined to be a hybrid.

“On Long Island there are no Jefferson salamanders, so it’s genetically pure out here,” he says. “From my experience they are spread from Hither Hills all the way to Money Pond. Wherever there are extensive wetlands is their historic range.”

But don’t expect to find a blue-spotted salamander anywhere else on the South Fork.

“They can’t get across the Napeague,” notes Ash.

SoFo’s blue-spotted salamander search in Montauk begins at 7:30 p.m. on, March 13, 2010. Call 537-9735 to reserve your “spot.”

Above: A Blue-spotted salamander.