SOFO Leads a Night-Time Search for the Elusive Tiger Salamander

Staff from the South Fork Natural History Museum led a nighttime expedition in the rain to hunt for the endangered Tiger Salamander in a local vernal pond on Saturday night. Michael Heller photos

The procession of about 20 people walked single file, their flashlights casting about in the darkness as a cold rain fell in the woods near Bridgehampton.

The group, which had gathered Saturday night, followed Frank Quevedo, the director of the South Fork Natural History Museum, and two of the museum’s environmental educators, Eleni Nikolopoulos and Taylor Ruhle, down a hill and around the occasional fallen tree limb to the banks of a small pond.

They were there in hopes of encountering the eastern tiger salamander, or Ambystoma tigrinum, the largest of the so-called mole salamanders, which can grow to an average length of 7 to 10 inches and spend most of their adult lives in underground burrows, emerging only for a few weeks in late winter and early spring to mate in woodland ponds like this one.

“We are very fortunate there are still some around for us to interact with and see,” Mr. Quevedo told the group before it set off in a caravan from SOFO’s museum on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike.

An endangered Tiger Salamander was spotted during the hike on Saturday.

The eastern tiger salamander, whose range spreads over most of the eastern United States, is an endangered species in New York State, with its remaining population being squeezed into an ever-smaller habitat in eastern Suffolk County. While most of Long Island’s tiger salamanders are found to the west, in the central pine barrens, small populations persevere on the East End.

Shortly after the party arrived at the pond’s edge, Mr. Quevedo cautioned participants to tread lightly because salamanders could be making their way down to the pond at that very moment. Mr. Quevedo and Ms. Ruhle, wearing waders and carrying powerful flashlights, stepped into the water, searching for signs of life, while other members of the group strolled slowly around the pond’s edge, shining their lights into the water.

Only minutes had gone by when Luke Roberts of East Hampton, a veteran of previous salamander hikes sponsored by SOFO, spotted one, just inches from the shore, where its black skin, speckled with brown spots, blended in seamlessly with the leaf litter and branches. Mr. Roberts, whose wife, Ashley, described him as “a bit of an animal nerd,” said it was just a matter of knowing how to look for them. “It’s about contrast, not color,” he said, “because they blend in so well.”

Staff from the South Fork Natural History Museum helped a young naturalist on Saturday.

It certainly wasn’t a matter of luck: Mr. Roberts also found the only other amphibians sighted Saturday night: two red spotted newts, which were only about three inches long and were dwarfed by the salamander, which was about eight inches long.

Salamanders, like all amphibians, are cold-blooded, and as such, typically hibernate in the cold weather, Ms. Nikolopoulos said. But tiger salamanders “start to feel the rain and the wet weather” in their burrows and know it is time to get to the pond, where the males leave their sperm, which the females collect and fertilize, leaving behind an egg mass containing 50 to 60 eggs, which hatch after about a month.

Salamanders remain in the pond in their larval stage until summer. Then the 5 to 10 percent of them that are lucky enough not to be picked off by herons, bullfrogs or other predators — including other tiger salamander larvae —reach adult age, take to dry land. They quickly move underground, often into tunnels left by moles and voles, and feed on insects and other subterranean invertebrates until the following year when they start their annual treks to the pond.

There is a reason tiger salamanders breed so early in the season. “Don’t forget they have a timeline,” Mr. Quevedo said. “These ponds run dry, so their instinct is to get out of the ground and into the pond to breed.”

Tiger salamanders breed exclusively in what are called vernal ponds, which are fed by rain and melting snow and fill up with water at this time of year. Unlike kettlehole ponds, also called coastal plains ponds, vernal ponds are not connected to the aquifer, so come the heat of summer, they evaporate.

“No fish can establish themselves because they go dry,” Mr. Quevedo said. “If there were fish, they’d eat all the eggs or larvae.”

Despite their fleeting nature, vernal ponds are complex ecosystems. “There is so much life in this pond right now,” said Ms. Nikolopoulos. While tiger salamanders typically breed very early, they are joined by newts, frogs and other creatures, including fairy shrimp, tiny crustaceans that are an important food source to birds and amphibians and, which, ironically depend on the ponds to dry out completely for their eggs to survive.

Vernal ponds are also frequently at risk from development. “When these vernal ponds are dry, often people don’t realize it’s even a pond,” said Mr. Quevedo, “so they fill it in. And once they do that, it’s gone. The whole population that relies on that pond is done.” Unless, of course, there is another nearby, but that is rarely the case, he said.

Salamanders have also come under pressure from people spraying toxic chemicals on their lawns, acid rain and other forms of pollution as well as climate change, Mr. Quevedo said. “But I can’t stress enough that habitat loss, and fragmented habitat, is the biggest threat facing them.”

“Our job as a nature education program is to create programs like this so people become sensitive to nature, to create some kind of connection, so they will become good stewards of the environment.”