03 - Smallmouth Salamanders On the Move
The (relatively) warm rains of early spring both fill up woodland pools and roadside ditches and signal the Smallmouth Salamanders to return and begin courtship and mating.
Smallmouth Salamanders are mole salamanders that can be remarkably abundant in wet, lowland habitat. These medium-sized salamanders reach a maximum length of six inches and are a uniform light gray in coloration. They're usually overlooked since they generally appear above-ground only at in early spring and are active only at night. During daylight hours they hide beneath debris and clumps of grass next to (or in) their breeding pools.
The rest of the year these guys spend their time underground in crawdad burrows where they snap up insects, worms, tadpoles and any other small organisms that take refuge there. Needless to say, little is known of their movements or activities during this period.
Should you stumble over a mating congress of Smallmouths it will pay to spend some time watching them - (in fact you'll have to spend some time since these creatures mate in a leisurely way) - since while mating congresses are common they're remarkably brief and last only one or two nights.
The males arrive first and await the arrival of the females which occurs a few days later. After arriving each female is courted by one or several males who deposit spermatophores (small, mushroom-shaped, jelly-like packets topped with sperm) on the floor of the pool. They then nip the females legs and often climb on her back and maneuver her cloaca over a spermatophore. The female's cloacal lips pick these sperm packets up and fertilization then occurs in the usual way. Often the male repeats this process several times. Within minutes after fertilization the female swims about and lays several eggs which are glued to sticks, stones, and vegetation until her supply of sperm is exhausted and then she returns and mates again until all of her eggs are fertilized and laid. The adults then return to their subterranean existence until next year. Tiny larval salamanders hatch out a week or two later (depending on temperature) and grow rapidly, metamorphosing into their terrestrial form by mid-May at the latest.
Smallmouth Salamanders are survivors. In our area I've found them to be the most common salamander in urban areas - provided there are suitable breeding pools available. In the country they're abundant wherever there are plenty of crawdad burrows - even in plowed fields. Anyone interested in observing this creature's mating habits is advised to await the first warm, drizzly night of February. Dress warmly, take an umbrella or raincoat and a well-charged flashlight and check out the ditches and pools of your area.
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The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri
Copyright © 2006 Jim Jung