MARQUETTE - It's a safe bet salamanders don't cross too many people's minds this time of year. For one thing, they're silent, nocturnal and subterranean, so that combination doesn't make for high visibility.
The fact they're one of nature's most mysterious animals, however, shouldn't keep them from being considered unworthy of note - especially since they survive the harsh winters so common in the Upper Peninsula.
Salamanders typically are land-dwelling species that breed in water, particularly temporary spring wetlands called vernal ponds. After hatching from their eggs, the amphibians go through a larval stage until they morph into terrestrial creatures.
Spotted salmanders spend most of the year in underground burrows and migrate over land after an inactive winter to breed in springtime vernal ponds. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
Herpatologist David A. Mifsud holds a Spotted Salamander he found during a recent warm spring night. The Salamanders migrate overland after hibernation to breed in vernal ponds. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
The cold-blooded salamanders breathe through gills when they're young, but when they become land-dwellers, they breathe through their lungs or through their moist skin.
How many animals have that quality?
And now is the time people can start seeing them - well, at least as much as they're going to see them.
David Mifsud, an ecologist who operates Herpetological Resource and Management, LLC, said salamanders are well adapted to the northern environment. However, this with U.P. winter being one of the harshest in recent memory, salamanders usually would be emerging from their inactive winter state.
That coming-back-to-life period is late April through early May, Mifsud said. Going a longer period without eating, though, causes stress on a salamander's body, plus it now faces a shorter breeding season, he said.
"Just because we had a short spring doesn't mean we're going to have a long summer," Mifsud said.
It's important, Mifsud stressed, that vernal pools are thawed so salamanders can get back to business.
"Last year was definitely a reality check of the unparalleled variability of Michigan's weather patterns," Mifsud said.
Although U.P. residents can't change weather patterns just yet, there are some measures they can take to help salamanders in their quest for survival in the Great White North.
Mifsud said vernal ponds should be protected, with buffers of 900 feet around the wetland perimeters to maintain the salamander populations.
It might be hard to spot, but Mifsud said if a motorist sees a salamander crossing the road, he or she should let it pass, or help it across the road.
Then there's the mudpuppy, which Mifsud noted is active year-round. Not only that, it thrives in cold-water environments.
"As long as they're in cold water, they are active and happy in that," Mifsud said.
A person might think with those adaptations, the mudpuppy might be better off than other salamanders, but Mifsud acknowledged ice anglers sometimes catch mudpuppies by accident and leave them on the ice, believing they're non-native or harmful.
Mifsud recommended putting mudpuppies back in the water because of the benefits they provide to the environment, such as feeding on carrion and invasive round gobies. They're also an important indicator species of overall environmental health, he said.
HRM administers the Michigan Herpetological Atlas, a DNR project designed to increase the state's knowledge of reptiles and amphibians. Mifsud said anyone can submit their observations to the atlas, which he called a "fun and simple way to get engaged and excited" about these animals.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan is home to about 13 salamander species, all of which are unique. For example, the red-backed salamander is fully terrestrial, laying its eggs on land.
Many others are called "mole salamanders" because they exhibit mole-like behavior, using burrows. The tiger salamander appears to be the most industrious of the bunch in this aspect, building its own burrows, while the spotted, blue-spotted and small-mouth salamanders use burrows created by other underground dwellers.
The four-toed salamander lays its eggs in leaf litter, moss or rotting wood overhanging a wet area. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop into the water where they turn into adults in about six weeks.
The red-spotted newt exhibits an almost reverse life cycle because it hatches in water, then lives on land for three to seven years (when it acquires a new name: eft). The newt eventually returns to the aquatic environment.
Tom Goniea, the DNR fisheries biologist who oversees reptiles and amphibians, or herptiles, said in a news release Michigan herp collectors may possess up to 10 frogs, toads and/or salamanders from the last Saturday in May through Nov. 15, although species of special concern may not be taken
For a long time, frogs and salamanders were used by anglers as bait, but with the advancement of artificial baits, the use of those species is unnecessary, Goniea said.
Mifsud also pointed out in a news release that most, if not all, salamanders in the state are declining. He attributed that to loss of habitat and fragmentation, which is a decrease in habitat type or the breaking up of remaining habitat into smaller, more isolated pieces). Salamanders also are sensitive to stormwater run-off, chemicals and invasive plants.
"It's going to take recognizing them as valuable parts of our ecosystem, not as secondary players," Mifsud said. "The attitude is gradually changing - from my perspective, things are getting better in terms of awareness."
Goniea recommended that instead of collecting herps, people should just enjoy them by taking a flashlight to a wetland and looking for the elusive creatures.
"You may have to look hard," Goniea said. "It takes awhile, but there are a variety of salamanders, frogs and toads out there to explore."
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.