Salamanders, the reclusive, lesser known cousins of frogs and toads, are among the cutest animals we have here in The Land Between. Often mistaken for lizards, salamanders are actually amphibians; they have moist skin, are usually small, and come in lots of fun colours and patterns.
Salamanders are usually found in damp, shady, forested areas such as under rocks, logs, and leaf litter, or in and around streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. Here in The Land Between we have 7 different species of salamander: the Blue Spotted, Eastern Red-backed, Four-toed, Mudpuppy, Northern Two-lined, Red Spotted, and Spotted.
If you have been lucky enough to see a salamander in the wild, I hope you told it thank you (from all of us). Despite how little most of us see (and probably think about) these colorful creatures, they actually play a very critical role in regulating and maintaining the health of our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems!
First off, salamanders are a nutritious source of food for many of our favorite species including birds, snakes, turtles, fish, and mammals! Because they are so small, salamanders are able to access food (such as the insects and other small creatures that live on/in the forest floor) that is out of reach for many other species. Salamanders consume this hard to access prey, and in turn transform it into an energy source that is more readily accessible to other animals in the ecosystem.
Next, because salamanders are both predators and prey, they are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. If something changes in the environment and impacts salamander predators or prey, the salamander population will show signs of imbalance, potentially before the imbalance can be seen in the predator or prey populations themselves. This allows scientists to look at one species to gain information about the health of an ecosystem as a whole.
Further, just like our turtle friends, some species of salamander disperse seeds as they move about and between their terrestrial and aquatic environments. For example, the seeds of Bur Marigold are known to be transported by some species of salamander during their spring migration.
Some species disperse more than just seeds! The Mudpuppy, the only completely aquatic salamander in Ontario, is the larval host of the Salamander Mussel – an endangered species and the only North American mussel known to use a vertebrate as its larval host (most species use fish).
Lastly, salamanders may indirectly impact the rate at which carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere. I know this sounds like a stretch, but bear with me here:
The leaves of deciduous trees are made of nearly 50% carbon. When these leaves are broken down by the insects and other creatures (detritivores) that live on the forest floor, that carbon is released into the atmosphere.
These detritivores are one of the preferred snacks of some species of salamander. So, the more salamanders in a forest (and in the case of the Eastern Red-backed Salamander, that can mean upwards of 2,500 salamanders per hectare), the less detritivores there are. The less detritivores there are, the more leaves are left intact, and the less carbon is released into the atmosphere!
Though many species of salamander in Ontario and around the world are believed to have healthy and stable populations, many are threatened with extinction. Here in Ontario, some of the most prevalent threats to salamanders are habitat loss (forests and wetlands), declining water quality, and road mortality.
Luckily, there are things we can do! Here are some of the ways you can help keep common salamanders common, and mitigate the threats to at-risk species:
- If you see a salamander on the road, if it is safe to do so, help it across. Just as when you help turtles, ensure you are moving the salamander in the direction it was heading.
- Minimize salamander handling. Aside from helping them to cross the road, it is best to avoid handling salamanders as much as possible. This is because salamanders are very sensitive, and the oils, salts and chemicals (such as hand sanitizer, bug spray and sunscreen) on human hands can have negative impacts on their overall health.
- If you are lucky enough to come across a salamander in your travels, consider reporting your sighting to iNaturalist. The more records we have of these shy species, the better we will be able to monitor their population health in the future.
- Learn more about the salamanders you have near you! The more you learn, the more you can use your newfound knowledge and appreciation for these species to inspire your friends and family to care for them too.
Written by Siena Smith
Davic, Robert D.; Welsh Jr., Hartwell H. 2004. On the ecological role of salamanders. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst., Vol. 35: 405-434