Thursday, July 23, 2009

Blue-spotted salamander

Nopiming Provincial Park (or “Noopiming” as I prefer to spell it because this is an Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) word meaning “in the bush” and the first vowel is long – indicated in some orthographies by doubling the “o”) is one of my favourite places for watching wildlife in Manitoba. I do a breeding bird survey here every year, on which I have encountered many wonderful sights including Canada lynx and nesting Trumpeter Swans. Situated in southeastern Manitoba, Canada and straddling the Ontario border (just north of Whiteshell Provincial Park), Noopiming is a wonderful example of the boreal forest of the Canadian shield. Normally, when I talk about Noopiming I go on for hours about owls or boreal birds or some exciting mammals but this post is about a smaller resident of Noopiming – the beautiful blue-spotted salamander.

Since I am more typically looking up in the trees I don’t often see salamanders but when I accompanied Shauna Hewson on an amphibian survey a few days ago I learnt a trick or two about looking on the ground. Blue-spotted salamanders are quite small (<14cm) and not easy to find. The first photo shows two salamanders from above. You can see the extensive blue spotting on the tail with less on the body, although there is considerable variation in individual markings.

These next shots show them from various angles on moss. In some of these shots you can see the grooves on the side of the body that are characteristic of the North American Ambystoma salamanders, sometimes called “mole salamanders”.

And here is a close up to show the features of the head such as the protruding eyes

The Ambystoma have some fascinating tricks. Maybe the most famous is the Axolotl, in which adults develop from aquatic larvae without the usual metamorphosis by developing lungs but retaining gills (actually the Axolotl is not alone in this). The blue-spotted salamander exhibits another fascinating phenomenon – they can hybridise with their sister species, the Jefferson’s Salamander, but this amazingly has resulted in two completely female hybrid populations, which lay eggs that contain cloned material, i.e. asexual reproduction. Genetically speaking the whole population is one hybrid cloned many times. Females in these all female populations still go through mating rituals with males of the parent species even though they don’t actually breed with them. These hybrids don't occur in Manitoba though - we are on the westernmost edge of the range of blue-spotted salamander and far from any populations of Jefferson's salamander.

Another highlight of the day was seeing two common snapping turtles – here is one of them. These enormous turtles have a formidable bite and can pluck unsuspecting prey from the surface with a dazzling speed that belies the turtle/tortoise reputation.

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