Search for salamanders continues in NH

HOLLIS – Until Thursday night, there were just two knee-deep ponds in all New Hampshire where marbled salamanders were known to breed, both of them in Hollis.

Mike Marchand, a wildlife biologist with the state Fish and Game Division, saw them there in 2006, and he’s been trying to find them elsewhere around the region ever since.

Though most people never see them, spotted salamanders are extremely common. Even those who seek out salamanders will seldom spot a marbled salamander.

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“I’ve seen two adults in 35 years here,” says Beaver Brook Land Manager Peter Smith, who spends about as much time in the woods as anyone.

Beaver Brook Association Executive Director Cliff Simmonds has lived smack dab within one of the region’s largest swaths of conservation land for nine years.

“The only time I saw one was right by my front door. I was raking leaves,” Simmonds says. That was at least four years ago, and he adds, “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of one since.”

Salamanders have no hair, of course, but their hides are distinctive. While the spotted salamanders have bright yellow spots on an otherwise dark gray skin, the marbled salamanders are black and bright blue all over, with irregular horizontal stripes.

All salamanders are shaped roughly the same, but the marbled are shorter and stockier than spotted salamanders, and grow about four to five inches long (both are much larger than the more common red-backed salamander, or the red eft).

Marbled salamanders are both rare and endangered in New Hampshire because the southern end of the state is at the northern reach of their range, Marchand said. They are more common in the mid-Atlantic states, such as Maryland.

“We’re not going to find them up in Pittsburg,” he said.

Because they are endangered, Marchand asked that The Telegraph not specify the locations of the ponds we scouted.

Marchand and other wildlife biologists have been looking for marbled salamanders mainly in the Hollis and Brookline areas, he said. They poked around in Hinsdale after a single adult marbled salamander was found there in 2000, but were unable to find more.

There’s only a few weeks every spring when they go look. These salamander species are known as “mole salamanders” because the adults spend most of their lives as deep underground as Whitey Bulger.

Mole salamanders can live for 10 to even 30 years, but biologists can catch up with them only when they come out to procreate. Salamanders, like numerous other amphibians, depend on vernal pools surrounded by forest. Drainage basins surrounded by suburbs won’t do.

“Their habitats tend to be vulnerable,” Marchand said.

Salamanders will spend their lives within a radius of several hundred feet around their home pool, a low area that fills up with water in the spring, but may nearly or completely dry out by late summer. Vernal pools have no fish, which would gobble up all the infant salamander, wood frogs and turtles.

While other amphibians breed in the spring and in the water, the marbled salamanders’ trick is to get a jump on things by hatching their young in the fall. Like the spotted salamanders, they make their moves when it rains, but they couple on land.

“They need to stay moist,” Marchand said.

The female brings her fertilized eggs to the dry edge of a pool and waits for autumn rain.

When the water rises, she lays her eggs, which hatch into the pool. The newborn, larval salamanders live there near the bottom all winter.

“They’re growing, although small, because the water is very cold,” Marchand said.

By April, when the ice has melted and the spotted salamanders come to lay their eggs, the surviving marbled salamanders are about an inch long, Marchand said. Though they themselves may make a meal for the predacious diving beetle, the little marbled ‘manders are perfectly positioned to feed on their more populous brethren.

“They are pretty voracious,” Marchand said, and they don’t eat flora.

Salamander larvae all look pretty much alike, and even experts can’t really tell an infant marbled salamander from an infant spotted salamander, Marchand said.

For a few weeks in early April, however, the newest generation of wood frogs and spotted salamanders are naught but eggs growing in gooey clumps in the pool. So, if you see an inch-long salamander then, it’s something to get excited about.

“Marbled salamander larvae should be the only larvae in the pool,” Marchand said. “If they are here, and they’re here in abundance, we will see them.”

After walking into the woods to a long, slender pond at dusk, Marchand slips into neoprene chest waders and walks into the water. Salamanders are more active at night, and it’s easier to see them in the water then.

“I’m a little nervous about the depth here,” Marchand said. “Vernal pools have good and bad years,” he said. “The water is down, it might have been a bad fall.”

As he makes his way slowly along, the water tops his knees, a good sign. Salamanders seem to favor ponds between knee and waist deep, he said. Marchand wears a big, bright headlamp, powered by a rechargeable battery the size of a paperback novel. Before long, he lights up something unusual: a crayfish.

“I’ve never seen that before,” he says.

Crayfish don’t belong in vernal pools; if it dries up, they will die, but in the meantime they will eat their fill of amphibians, he says. A less enlightened salamander enthusiast might be tempted to pitch the crayfish far into the woods. Marchand let it be.

He soon finds 23 clumps of spotted salamander eggs and several adult spotted salamanders. Until they can move back underground, the leaves at the bottom hide them well.

Marchand moves slowly, bent slightly forward to scope out the water. He hopes to see a sort of miniature salamander, slender and about an inch long. They tend to scatter and swim solo, not congregate in groups, he said.

“They can shoot down to the bottom and hide. The trick is to see them before they do that,” Marchand said.

“Ooh!” he exclaims at one point, and then sighs, “Some kind of larval caterpillar.”

We hear wood frogs croaking and an owl hooting, but see no salamander larvae, the whole length of the pond and back.

“That’s disappointing,” Marchand declares. “They could be here, they may just not be as abundant. . . . If they’re in low numbers, you’re not going to find them with this methodology.”

The next pond, about half a mile away, is a somewhat deeper and more rounded shape. A few spring peepers call out for available females, and there are clumps of spotted salamander and wood frog eggs, but again, he finds no sign of marbled salamanders, even by scooping with a net and checking amongst the mud and leaf litter. There’s also a worrisome abundance of some sort of weedy vegetation that Marchand can’t identify.

“My gut feeling is that they were relatively abundant when we were here before,” he says. “When you only have two sites, you hope they will keep going strong.”

Marchand hadn’t planned to check the ponds this spring, but did so in hopes of showing a reporter what they look like. He plans to keep looking elsewhere around the region, and he said he probably would revisit the two Hollis ponds in the fall, in hope of finding adults. “They could be here,” he says. “It’s not doomsday.”

Still, he says, “I’m bummed.”