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Our Only Backyard Salamander 


It's always a pleasure for me to come out the back (or front), step off the porch and suddenly see a long, slender amphibian with a bright yellow patch on its back, madly scrambling for cover under the porch.

If that happens to you some stormy night after a rain, don't be surprised, for it's "our" Long-toed Salamander, aka Ambystoma macrodactylum, to local herps experts, as the only native salamander we have running around on this side of the Cascades.

Breaking down the etymology of the salamander's genus name we have: Ambystoma—from amblys (Greek) for blunt; stoma (Greek) meaning mouth; (or in the New Latin) to cram into the mouth; tigrinum – from tigris and tigrinus (Latin) for of tigers, and somehow that got the animal-namers to Long-toed Salamanders. To further confuse the naming process, zoologists have the Long-toed Salamanders broken into five subspecies.

According to paleontologists, salamanders originated approximately 81 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous, which was a long time ago.

(If you want to get into a heated discussion, step into a room-full of taxonomists who are discussing animal names keyed to geography, geology, habitat preferences, food, color of adults, method of reproduction and any other traits they have tossed into the naming grinder.)

The body of the Long-toed Salamander is usually dusky dark with a dorsal (on the back) stripe of dusky tan, yellow, or olive-green, which at times can be seen as broken up into a series of spots. The sides of the body can have tiny fine white or pale blue flecks. There is no other salamander in the Northwest that looks like that.

The Long-toed can be found throughout the Northwest, almost as far north as Alaska. It lives at altitudes ranging from 2,400 to a little over 9,000 feet above sea level. That is, you can find them in the sagebrush and juniper, clear up to the summit of Mt. Bachelor scurrying about in damp underbrush.

Amphibians and salamanders hibernate in winter, surviving on moisture and absorbing oxygen through their skin in the hibernaculum, which is located in damp soil well below the freeze line. Salamanders cannot move to feed while hibernating, so they keep alive by living off the fat reserve under the skin and in the tail. That may not sound like fun, unless you like to sleep and not move at all during winter.

(When my wife Sue, or Doctor Fan gives my fat gut the evil eye, I tell 'em it's my survival fat for winter, which doesn't always bring on a laugh, or a groan.)

Surprisingly, Long-toeds are active when there's still frost in the night air. One can find their eggs in water under a thin skim of ice on small ponds. Like many amphibians, the Long-toed's eggs are surrounded by a transparent, gelatinous capsule, making the embryo visible during development.

When in its egg, the Long-toed embryo is darker on top and whiter below. Prior to hatching, the larvae have "balancers"—thin skin protrusions sticking out the sides and supporting the head. The balancers eventually fall off and their external gills appear. Long-toed Salamanders are predators in the larval form, and as they become adults, the head grows longer (to catch larger prey it would seem). Then their limbs appear—four digits on the front limbs and five on the rear. When lungs are developed, the gills are resorbed into the animal's tissue bank.

(Metamorphosis is, to me, one of the "Miracles of Nature." As the process moves the larval animal to becoming an adult, the internal organs go through some kind of change, requiring the new one taking over a new process as they become an adult—such as wings and the reproductive system in insects, lungs in amphibians and adult humans.)

As Long-toed larvae metamorphose, the developing digits distinguish this species from others, thus accounting for the etymological origin of its specific genus: macrodactylum (Greek makros, and long, and daktylos for toe). They are also known as the mole salamanders for the way they dig into the soil to escape predators, find food (worms and larval insects), and stay cool and damp.

As a citizen scientist your observations could be vital to the herptile scientific community (the study of amphibians and reptiles). Reproductive habitat, such as ponds and small, slow streams with larva could be brought to the attention of local wildlife officials. If you bump into an adult Long-toed while you're gardening or conducting other outdoor activities, that too is important information. Many thanks.


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