In an earlier blog, we mentioned that Spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) were making their way into ponds to breed. We thought that we might tell you about not only Spotted salamanders but also about the family of salamanders that they belong to, the Ambystomatidae. These amphibians are collectively known as “mole” salamanders because they spend much of the year underground. This family is distributed throughout most of North America and contains 37 species. Oklahoma has six species.
Among the Oklahoma species of mole salamanders, some breed in late winter, like the Spotted salamander and the Small-mouthed salamander (A. texanum), some breed in fall, like the Marbled and Ringed salamanders (A. opacum and A. annulatum, respectively), and some breed in spring, like the Tiger and Mole salamanders (A. tigrinum and A. talpoideum, respectively). When they are breeding, many hundreds seem to appear from nowhere. Considering how many arrive at the breeding ponds, it seems that they could be found any time during the remainder of the year—not so! After adults breed in ponds, they leave the ponds and go underground, not to be seen until the next breeding event. Obviously, they must feed while underground in order to grow and save energy to reproduce next time, but very little is known about their underground activity. Some, like Tiger salamanders, are known to live in gopher burrows, often in large numbers, but for the rest, we know very little.
After the breeding events, eggs hatch in ponds, and thousands of tiny salamander larvae emerge. Larvae of all species of mole salamanders look superficially alike, and a bit of skill is required to identify the different species in larval form. They have external gills, a laterally compressed tail that aids in swimming, and when not slowly walking on the pond bottom, they swim with an undulating motion, similar to that of alligators. Temporary ponds are filled with tiny invertebrates, collectively called microinvertebrates, such as ostracods, copepods, and Daphnia (a genus of cladocerans). Larvae of mole salamanders vacuum up these tiny invertebrates by opening the mouth and expanding the throat at the same time. They close the mouth and expel the water out through the gill slits, but retain the prey items. Their diet includes nearly every kind of pond organism small enough to fit into their mouths.
Larvae of Mole salamanders grow rapidly, but should rain be scarce, their pond might dry up before they are large enough to transform into adults. Ponds are also filled with predators that eat salamander larvae, including watersnakes, bullfrogs, giant waterbugs, and larvae of dragonflies and predaceous diving beetles. Some species of birds also visit ponds and capture salamander larvae. As salamander larvae grow, it is less likely that they will be captured and eaten by an insect. Large larvae are particularly attractive to birds and snakes. Life in the pond is risky for salamander larvae, and the best thing to do is grow fast and leave the pond as quickly as possible. Of the thousands of eggs that are deposited each year, some will survive to become adults and breed, and most won’t. Variation among individual offspring sets the stage for natural selection.