116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
TODDVILLE - Salamanders are on the move in Iowa, heading back to the ponds and wetlands where they were born so they can spawn.
These secretive black or dark gray amphibians with colored spots can travel up to a mile to make it home, guided by magnetic fields, the moon, stars or reflections off the water.
'They can travel a long ways, for such a small animal,” said Paul Frese, a wildlife research technician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 'As with birds and mammals, they all have their way of finding their way to places we don't really know about.”
Tiger salamanders are the most common in Iowa and have been located across the state, the Iowa DNR reported. Smallmouth salamanders are in the southern three tiers of counties.
But the endangered blue-spotted salamander is found in only two places in Iowa, one in Black Hawk County and the other north of Cedar Rapids in Linn County. The creatures are more numerous in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.
'They are what we call a glacial relic species,” Frese said. 'As the climate changed in last 10,000, 20,000 years, blue-spotted salamanders haven't survived outside these two areas.”
The window for salamanders to migrate in the spring begins immediately after the ice melts and spring rains fill prairie potholes. The males arrive first and wait a few days under logs and shore debris for the females. Once spawning begins, the salamanders go underwater to the bottom of the ponds at night.
'They do go through an elaborate courtship,” said Jeff LeClere, an amphibian and reptile specialist and author of the 2013 book 'Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Iowa.”
If the female is receptive, the male deposits a spermatophore, or a packet of genetic material, on the bottom of the pond. The female then sits on the material and collects it into her body. Once the eggs are fertilized, she lays them in clusters on leaves or twigs in the water, LeClere said.
'It takes roughly a couple of weeks” for larvae to emerge, he said. 'The warmer the water, the faster the development occurs.”
Jenny Corbett, Linn County Conservation lead education specialist, walked Thursday around the edge of a wetland near the Wickiup Hill Learning Center near Toddville looking for a mossy log she could roll over to try to find a tiger salamander. These palm-size amphibians like ephemeral ponds that dry up in the summer because that means the pond is less likely to have fish and other predators.
'This is ideal,” she said, crouching beside a decayed log hidden beneath fallen cattail stalks. She gently pulled back the grass around the site and lifted up the log. No salamander. Give it a few more days, Corbett said, and the area around likely will see more salamanders returning.
Older Iowans may remember when salamanders were plentiful, but development and farming have erased much of their habitat. Salamanders need not only a wet spot for spawning, but a nearby prairie or forest where they live in underground burrows most of the year.
Salamanders often live between 10 and 20 years, which means they will repeat the spring migration many times. If their natal pond is drained, they may not reproduce after that.
One of the hard lessons of conservation is you can return a wetland to its natural state and provide new habitat for birds and animals, but it doesn't mean they will come there to nest and breed, Corbett said.
Still, she got a payoff Thursday with another animal species when a pair of rare sandhill cranes landed near the learning center and called to another crane flying by. 'That's why we do it,” she said.
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