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Tiger Salamanders

Why did the chicken cross the road? That might be the age-old question, but some of you may be wondering why the salamander crossed the road.

I suspect that most everyone is familiar with salamanders. North Dakota has one native salamander, and that is the eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum). They can be found statewide. They are about 6-8 inches long, have smooth moist black or maybe a ripe olive colored skin, with pale yellowish spots or blotches.

Salamanders are amphibians, not reptiles. Tiger salamanders generally inhabit their burrows in moist-damp habitats where they feed on earthworms, slugs, insects, and the like. As with other amphibians the young develop in bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, and marshes. It is around August when the young become fully developed and can spend more time out of the water.

And it’s around this time each year, roughly the end of August and into September, when they leave the area around wetlands in search of a place higher up on the landscape in which to hibernate. Their movements usually are most pronounced during a warm rainy period. Most of the salamanders we see this time of year are young of the year. From what I have read, most salamanders probably don’t make their first birthday.

There is a rather interesting aspect to the development of some tiger salamanders. Like frogs, the larval stage of salamanders has gills that stick out, and their legs form during larval development. But some individual tiger salamanders (or populations) never metamorphose into adults. They spend their entire lives in the larval stage in a body of water. This phenomenon is called neoteny. It is not well understood why this happens, but it may have something to do with a nutritional deficiency or perhaps the quality of habitat. Either way the salamanders do become sexually mature, they just don’t lose their gills.

So, if you see any of those salamanders crossing the road, try to let them cross safely. All they are trying to do is find a nice safe place to spend the winter.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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