Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
On warm, rainy March nights, a mass migration begins. Throughout the forests of Eastern North America, spotted salamanders emerge from their winter brumation (hibernation: salamander edition) after months of lurking underground to traverse great stretches of moist forest leaf litter. Their destination? Temporary shallow ponds in the forest called vernal pools where they gather en masse to mingle, intertwine their slimy selves, and create the next generation of salamanders.
I had heard of this spectacular event from books (specifically the “Collateral Damage” chapter from Braiding Sweetgrass) and from fellow nature nerds but never had witnessed it myself. So a few evenings ago when a good rain was in the forecast for the evening and temperatures were between 40 and 50 Fahrenheit, I found the nearest pond on Google Maps, grabbed a flashlight and a raincoat, and set off.
A mere mile from my front door, I trekked along a muddy forest path toward the dark, tannin-stained waters of Black Pond, a single vernal pool encapsulated by a remnant tract of undeveloped forest. With my flashlight I navigated through the woods; no maps were necessary—the calls of the spring peepers, small web-toed frogs, made it easy to find the right trail to take. I simply followed the trail that brought me toward the peeps of the peepers who are highly vocal on early spring nights and tend to cling close to ponds. Soon enough I arrived at the pool, and I searched the muddy edge of the pond with the beam of my flashlight. Nothing but the small tan-brown peepers appeared at first, their vocal sacs fully inflated for producing their mating calls.
Not wanting to get my expectations too high, I had mentally prepared for a salamander-less night. The details of their movements and general life cycles, after all, are still not totally understood by science, and their habitats are so sensitive to change that a pond that holds salamanders one year could easily be empty the next. But then, surfing over the leaf litter with clumsy grace, a spotted salamander made its way toward the pond. A few feet over, another. And then another appeared. Soon, the pond was crowded with spotted salamanders, each five to eight inches long, swimming through the water and popping up the surface to take a quick breath. I had hoped for a dozen; at the pond that night there were easily 200 salamanders!
On all accounts, these creatures are unlike anything else. Their dark purple skin blends in well with the muted colors of the forest floor, but their bright yellow spots give them away—most likely a signal to predators to stay away from their toxic skin. To raise young, the female lays a clutch of eggs in the vernal pool, each egg imbued with a species of algae (Oophila amblystomatis) that only occurs in the embryos and reproductive tracts of spotted salamanders. It was once thought the algae simply existed side-by-side the salamander embryos as they developed, benefiting from the youngsters’ nitrogen waste (that is, their pee) while producing oxygen the salamanders need for respiration. However, recently scientists determined that the algae actually exists inside the salamander’s cells, forming a plant-animal relationship that is totally unique among all vertebrate species. On top of that, if injured, spotted salamanders can regrow limbs, organs, and even portions of their brains.
They are part jelly, part earth. Part animal, part plant. Part aquatic, part terrestrial. And occasionally, part male, part female. Ambystoma maculatum—the spotted salamander—defies categorization, and there’s something fantastically monstrous about that.