On a recent visit to a Conservancy parcel on Bedminster Lane, Andy Wood found a southern dusky salamander with her eggs. Picture below, with cardinal flower growing in another area of the parcel.
Southern dusky salamanders appear to be declining in North Carolina, for yet unknown reasons beyond simple habitat alteration and loss. Brush-hogging to remove understory forest vegetation, as commonly seen around our region, is extremely harmful to this species because the practice drastically alters the forest floor ecosystem.
Finding an adult dusky is significant enough, but one with eggs is very cool. Dusky salamanders are semi-aquatic. Unlike many amphibians this species provides considerable parental care to its eggs. After mating, the fertilized female finds a log or other forest floor debris to crawl under and place her 10-25 eggs, which she stays with while they incubate (which can take up to 80 days), leaving them only at night to go forage for food and returning before morning.
The eggs are thin-shelled spheres that she helps keep moist by wrapping her body around them as the embryos develop inside. The hatchling salamanders push through their eggs shell as half-inch long versions of the adult, and quickly migrate to water, typically a small swampy stream. They are equipped with delicate external gills to breathe oxygen from water, while otherwise feeding in tiny aquatic invertebrates. The larvae complete their metamorphosis during winter and spring, and then take on a life as a terrestrial adult, with a lifespan of 5 to 10 years or more.
This female and her eggs were located about three feet from the swamp creek that meanders through the property, and no doubt that is where she got her start on life, considering this species has a home range of only a few square meters. All this to say, the Conservancy property is the buffer protecting the creek that is home to this and other dusky salamanders. I plan to revisit the site this week to check on the eggs’ and female.
We also found an adult box turtle, which is again significant considering that species’ range-wide decline. In addition, there are more than a few tulip poplar trees in one swampy area that each have a trunk diameter of more than 3.5 feet. We’ll collect tree ring data to age them. They aren’t terribly old but they are majestic.