Salamanders and vernal pools

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2014

By Susan and Biff Andrews

“One impulse from a vernal wood/May teach you more of man,/Of moral evil and of good/Than all the sages can.”

— William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”

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It’s time. Shallow depressions in wooded areas have begun to fill up with water again. As the fall rains have turned to winter rains, the depressions have become puddles, then wetlands. Now, as they are full of water, they have become pools — vernal pools.

From now through early spring, trees are dormant. They don’t need all that moisture around them. It merely gathers into pools. Because they are dry part of the year, there are no fish in these small ponds. And that makes them perfect for salamanders.

Why write about vernal (spring) pools this time of year? Because of the small marbled salamanders — four-inch females — that sat on eggs in dried-up vernal pools waiting for the water. Eventually it will come, covering the eggs and causing them to hatch within 48 hours.

After 60 to 100 days in the water, the salamanders will lose their gills and leave the pool for a terrestrial habitat. A form of “mole” salamander, they will spend nearly their entire lives underground.

Within three months of leaving the water, their markings are set — a dark gray or black background with silver or white lines and patterns across their backs. They are beautiful.

By February or March, spotted salamanders will move to these pools to breed and lay large egg masses of 200 — the size of tennis balls — which stick together as a mass. Their eggs hatch in early spring, and again the young mature in the relative safety of the fishless pools, then become terrestrial “mole” salamanders as adults.

Spotted salamanders grow four to eight inches long, are gray or black, with rounded yellow or orange spots all over their backs. They feed on earthworms, spiders, insects and even smaller salamanders. Adults may live up to 20 years. They, too, are beautiful.

By late spring, the leaves are out and the trees need water. The spring rains end, and slowly the water evaporates. By the middle of summer, most of the pools are dry.

But they have served their purpose — to create an ephemeral habitat for some amphibians that love water but not fish. Everything has a purpose, even seasonal wetlands. Creatures adapt to their environment to ensure their own survival.

To quote Wordsworth, “Let nature be your teacher.”

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at