Cool Fact: Spotted salamanders are the only known animals with a backbone that can photosynthesize—that is, turn sunlight into food, like a plant!
While an uncommon sight for most of the year, many a Mainer has encountered a spotted salamander at least once in their lifetime. Typically, spotted salamanders (colloquially called “spotties”) spend most of their time underground, foraging on insects and enjoying the cool, moist hideaways provided among tree roots, fallen logs, and leaf litter. However, come spring, spotties can be readily found on the surface at night during rain events as they migrate to and from their breeding pools. The busiest time for them is mid-April, though they can be found moving as early as mid-March in southern Maine and as late as mid-May in northern Maine.
Spotties are vernal pool breeding specialists—they are one of the few amphibians that have adapted a life cycle that can survive a pool that dries out by late summer. Because of this, they are considered valuable in evaluating vernal pool ecosystems and forest health. Should a vernal pool be found to contain enough spotty eggs, it can gain special protection from state government. Spotted salamander egg masses are about palm-sized gelatinous globs that, while squishy, hold form very well. They can be clear, milky white, or even green—the start of that special photosynthetic ability mentioned above!
Eggs will hatch relatively quickly, with young salamanders (larvae) resembling fish until metamorphizing into adult forms by August. They will disperse into the woody uplands and return to breed in several years.
Spotted salamanders are found throughout the eastern US and into southeastern Canada.
Because of long-term monitoring projects, we now know that spotties can live for decades—perhaps as old as 30 years! There are many danger to face when you’re a spotty, though: deforestation, cars, predators, pollutants, and climate change are all known threats to this species. You can help spotted salamanders by protecting vernal pools and surrounding forests on your property, helping them cross roads in spring time (including by participating in Maine Big Night: Amphibian Migration Monitoring, using safe chemicals for yard maintenance, encouraging less road salt use in your town, and advocating for protecting large swaths of woodland in your community.
—by Greg LeClair, founder of Maine Big Night and a 2022 Brookie Award winner