Friday, April 16, 1999
Salamanders, Treasures of which We are the Stewards
Protecting salamander habitat actually saves a homeowner money and time rather than adding one more worry or expense (like your septic system, well, or long driveway). As Carlisle is chopped into two-acre bits, we individual landowners become stewards to salamander habitats. Understanding their life cycle and a few tips can show you the way to painless wildlife protection.
We have, generally, three kinds of salamanders in Carlisle. The most common is the woodland or red-tailed salamander, a little guy with a red strip the length of its body who lives under rocks and logs and needs forest litter to survive but has no interest or need for ponds or pools for breeding.
The seasons of a salamander's year
The yellow-spotted and blue-spotted salamander are rarely seen, but they are there. These five- to eight-inch long amphibians can live for more than a decade, following a predictable, but elusive pattern. Summer and fall will find a solitary salamander foraging for grubs and bugs under moist forest litter and in tunnels up to a meter deep in a territory about a meter wide. It hunkers down for a long winter sleep. On a moist night it will passionately migrate, along with all the other salamanders from their own one-meter territories, to the pool where it was born. Small egg clusters cling to vegetation or sink to the bottom and will hatch about one month later.
The breeding pools are generally 12 to 15 inches deep, shaded, still, and will hold water until late June or July. Road and lawn runoff will poison the breeding pool, as will subsoil silt. (That's what all those hay bales at construction sites are about.)
Peeps and pluck
If you can hear peepers (a high-pitched chorus) from your front door on a spring night you may have salamander territories on your property. If the chorus sounds like ducks or like the plucking of the surface of a balloon, you are within earshot of wood frog-breeding habitat; you probably do have salamander grazing territories on your land. Salamanders themselves are silent.
Don't expect to see salamanders either. One wildlife naturalist from the University of Vermont said that he had assumed that the farm pond next to his house was not a candidate as a breeding site. He had seen only one or two salamanders in all the years he had lived there. Then one spring night he was chasing a frisky puppy back into the house at dusk when he saw a fast moving wiggle and then another. He grabbed his wife and kids and they started counting: 1,200 salamanders in four hours.
This abundance is not universal. Development, runoff and landscaping have severely cut into habitat to the point where the blue-spotted salamander is on the Massachusetts species of special concern list. Carlisle is the only town in this area where it has been seen since 1978. Its breeding habitat, the vernal pool, can be certified and protected under state law.
The salamander habitat matrix is moist forest grazing territories linked by continuous paths, up to 1,500 feet long, to wet breeding ponds. The salamanders need all three, and the three need to be connected.
What to do? As little a possible
How can you, the individual landowner, be a good wildlife steward? The simplest answer: do as little as possible. Leave the two fallen trees per acre as well as two standing dead trees. Don't clear away all the fallen dead wood in an effort to neaten up the forest. Nature is messy for a reason. Leave the leaves alone. Shrubs and understory growth help hold the moisture low to the ground and provide shelter.
Bark mulch is too dense to provide forage or cover and may contain dyes and fungicides. Monoculture lawn is lethal; preemergent weed killer can be absorbed straight through a salamander's skin during its breeding migration. This is not to imply that one needs a huge 1500-foot radius buffer zone around every puddle. Rather imagine the spokes of a wheel; save a few spokes to connect the upland forest with the breeding pool.
Next time you survey your woods, go easy on yourself. Don't add "clear the brush" or "extend the lawn" to your to- do list. Instead, congratulate yourself on your wildlife preservation and have a cup of tea; put your feet up. It's cheap, it's easy, and its the right thing to do.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito