With it being Valentine’s Day weekend, love is in the air, as we use the holiday to show others how much we care for them, whether they are family, friends or romantic interests. But for me, love is also in the water.
I get kind of edgy around Valentine’s Day, but it is not because of the flowers I need to remember to buy. Particularly during rainy nights, my anxiousness comes from knowing that salamanders are moving, and that soon their ponds will be filled with courtship. And I want to be there.
Salamanders are long, cylindrical amphibians that look like lizards, but with a moist skin. Like other amphibians, they often live part of their lives in water, and part on land. Adult salamanders, particularly pond-breeding species, spend most of their time living underground, which is one reason many people haven’t seen them.
But on rainy winter nights, salamanders emerge, moving from their burrows to breeding ponds. Males constantly search for females, and when they find one they will enter a complex courtship, nudging and circling her, and if interested the female will reciprocate the dance. If the courtship continues, they will mate, a complex process in which males produce jelly-like cones called spermatophores. If the female chooses to mate with the male, she will use it to fertilize her eggs. Sometimes such courtship is so intense that you can see dozens of spermatophores laid on the pond bottom.
Female salamanders typically lay their eggs in clusters. The embryos develop for about three weeks before hatching, producing a larva. Salamander larvae look like tiny fish, with a fleshy tail and obvious gills that stick out behind both sides of their head.
Larvae sit on the pond bottom for a few days before starting to venture out on their own. They eat small invertebrates, and as they grow will start to consume larger prey. Eventually, they will grow large enough to metamorphose, a process in which they change their bodies from an aquatic, gilled form into a completely terrestrial, adult form. Amphibian metamorphosis is one of the most amazing transformations that occur among vertebrates, species like humans that have backbones made of vertebrae. After maturing on land, they will return to their pond to breed for themselves, completing the life cycle.
Salamanders are not the only species that gets amorous during the spring, and for good reason. The earlier a species breeds, the more time their offspring have to grow and develop. Natural selection has worked strongly on this urge, and in salamanders it has taken it to the extreme. Many ponds dry up in the summer, so there is a limit to how long the larvae can develop. And, as spring approaches, predators such as dragonflies and herons are more active. The larger a larva can grow before ponds dry or predators arrive, the more likely it will survive.
Of the 35 salamander species in Kentucky, seven of them are pond breeders, and six can be found in the Jackson Purchase. The most common of these is the Spotted Salamander. Spotteds are aptly named, as they are black with vibrant yellow and orange spots. Their bright round eyes and head make them look like cute amphibious gnomes. Even if you do not see them, you will often observe their softball-sized, globular egg masses attached to fallen branches in a pond.
You can look for these species in your own ponds, but only if they are free of fish, which eat salamanders. However, salamanders will also breed in newly flooded areas, such as along our rivers. Such areas are shallow enough that fish predators aren’t present. If you know of a place like this that will hold water for at least a month or so, it is likely that one or more species are present. Grab a headlamp and check out the areas around the pond on rainy nights. Or, get some boots and wade into the ponds looking for them. You may see more courtship in one night than you will ever see in bars, and maybe, like me, Valentine’s Day will be extra meaningful for you. There is love in the water, after all.