Mole salamander is the term for any of seven species of salamanders in the genus Ambystoma in Ohio. For nearly the entire year, mole salamanders are out of sight and out of mind, burrowing through soil or lurking in tunnels created by other animals.
While under the ground, these salamanders hunt earthworms, slugs and other small prey. But for one brief glorious period in early spring, mole salamanders put on quite a show.
The running of the salamanders is one of nature's most amazing spectacles. In late winter or early spring, when the first warm rains soak and thaw the ground, a primal urge is triggered in the mole salamanders. Like amphibious zombies, these otherwise subterranean creatures rise from the earth under cover of darkness and march overland to favored breeding pools.
Shangri-la for the salamanders is wooded wetlands known as vernal pools. These ponds are flooded from late winter through mid-summer, drying out for the remainder of the year.
This cycle of seasonal inundation is key to the breeding success of the salamanders and myriad other animals that reproduce in vernal pools. Wet and dry cycles prevent the establishment of fish, which would prey upon the salamanders' eggs and larvae.
First on the vernal pool scene is the Jefferson salamander, which often is in full courtship mode in late February. They are the vanguard of waves of salamanders to come, including smallmouth, spotted and tiger salamanders. The latter is the largest of the mole salamanders, and impressive specimens can measure a foot in length.
Probably the most conspicuous and showy of the bunch is the spotted salamander. They are bluish-black above and gunmetal gray below, and would be Plain Janes were it not for their spots. However, these aptly named amphibians are polka-dotted with lemon-yellow spots, which greatly enliven their appearance.
Once the salamanders are ensconced in their vernal pool, a frenzy of courtship "dancing" erupts. For a few days, the tranquil wetlands seethe with the writhing bodies of salamanders. The males pull out all the stops to lure females to their spermatophores, or sperm packets.
If successfully wooed, the female will uptake the chosen male's spermatophore and fertilize her eggs. Shortly thereafter, she'll dump dozens of eggs, each of which contains an embryo packed in a gelatinous coating.
Upon contact with water, the eggs' gooey membranes greatly expand, and the resulting egg mass becomes fist-sized.
Several weeks later, tiny salamander larvae emerge and begin feeding voraciously on the vernal pool's rich animal life.
By the dog days of summer, when the pool has nearly dried to mud, the young salamanders migrate to the surrounding woods and into the earth. After three years or so, they'll be sexually mature and ready to join their brethren on their annual breeding march to the vernal pools.
For more information on Ohio's mole salamanders and 31 other species of amphibians, get a copy of the Amphibians of Ohio field guide at www.wildohio.com.
Jim McCormac is a wildlife specialist with Ohio Division of Wildlife.