Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
Recognized Subspecies in VA: None
Size: 4 - 8 inches
Range: Statewide, possibly excluding the far southern Coastal Plain
Status: Least Concern
Spotted Salamanders are a favorite of vernal pool lovers such as Master Naturalist groups. These are very charismatic salamanders, with their derpy faces and bright yellow spots. The Spotted Salamander has always been a herp of interest, as they are very secretive, and rare outside of breeding season where they spend their life in their subterranean lairs. In late winter, on a warm, wet night, they mass migrate in huge numbers to vernal pool to lay their eggs. These large egg masses are interesting because they come in three color morphs (clear, milky, and intermediate). It is not clear yet the purpose of these colors, but perhaps it has something to do with lighting. Why would lighting be a factor for salamanders? That is another cool fact. These egg masses promote the growth of an unique algae called Oophila amblystomatis. This algae grows on and in the skin of the embryo and provides nourishment for the developing larva. This made the Spotted Salamander the first known photosynthetic vertebrate. This algae is bright green, but will turn red (as some plants will) to cope with high levels of sunlight. So milky eggs may block out some light from the algae. In direct sunlight this is beneficial, in the shade this would choke out all of the light to the algae and kill it.
The best way to find Spotted Salamanders is to shine areas around vernal pools on nights when they are moving (late January to March). I also find several road cruising warm, wet winter nights when they are forced out of their burrows. I have occasionally flipped this species, especially around breeding season, but also in the summer on rare ocassion. This species is the only wide spread species that has a slate base, and bold yellow to orange spots. Adults are large and thick. Their tails are flat, but not paddle-like. They often have lighter flanks, with blue-white specks.
Similar Species: Spotteds are often mistaken for Tiger Salamanders, which are very rare and have cat-like eyes and giant yellow-olive blotches instead of small clear spots. The Yellow-spotted Woodland Salamander (Plethodon pauleyi) as a Plethodon species is very slender salamander with webbed hind-toes. This species is only known from one site in Wise County.
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