Tracking elusive quarry in the Year of the Salamander
Lyme - Slippery, slithery and secretive, Dennis Quinn's prey would elude lesser woodsmen lacking his specialized learning and boyish aplomb for capturing wildlife that dwells in dark, wet places.
"I've never been to a vernal pool and not pulled out a salamander for somebody," Quinn said Thursday, as he drove his SUV along one of the rough dirt roads in Nehantic State Forest, on his way to a small seasonal pond he found on a satellite map. "If you understand the biology of the organism, you'll know where to find it.
"The two-lined salamanders tend to be under the rocks on the edges of streams, but you're more likely to find them under flat rocks than round ones. Catching them just comes with practice. They're just very fast, and slippery."
Quinn, 35, of Southington, is serving this year as one of the state's ambassadors and spokesmen for the species of amphibian being accorded special attention by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection along with national reptile and amphibian conservation groups. Owner of a 10-year-old business called CT Herp Consultant, he applies his love and knowledge of herpetology in academic and field settings and is currently helping DEEP on various wildlife projects including its "Year of the Salamander" activities, the latest in a series spearheaded by Partners in Reptile and Amphibian Conservation.
Part of that work includes answering requests to DEEP for an expert to show the curious where to find salamanders in their neck of the Connecticut woods. Because of Connecticut's wide variety of habitats and geology - from the coastal zone to the northwest hills - it supports 12 different types of salamanders, a large number for a relatively small land area. But, owing to their habit of spending their lives under rocks and decaying logs and in leafy-bottomed pools, emerging on land only briefly on spring nights to reach wetland breeding parties, salamanders are creatures sorely in need of good publicity agents to advocate for their protection, Quinn believes. The one exception is the juvenile eft stage of the red-spotted newt, the only one of the 12 that comes out during the day, their bright orange bodies easily spotted crossing forest trails.
"Most people never see them," Quinn said. "They're underground during the day, and then people hit them when they're crossing the roads at night, and don't even realize it."
He parked his SUV beside a small pond woven across with the skeletons of shrubs and saplings yet to sprout new leaves. That spring had arrived, though, was unmistakable. Permeating the air was a loud chorus of peeper frogs singing the soprano line with wood frogs croaking the baritone part, filling the surrounding forest in a rhythmic mating chant.
"This is a beautiful wetland here," Quinn said, as he bushwhacked toward the edge of the pond, stopping to turn over partially rotted logs and reveal tiny Northern red-back salamanders hiding there. "Spring peepers and wood frogs are an indicator of environmental health, both of the waters and of clean, healthy upland."
Wading in, he snapped his cupped hands down into the water, coming out with three red-spotted newts squirming between his palms.
"Two of them were breeding," he said. "I disturbed them, but they'll go right back to it when I put them back. These are fully aquatic as adults."
Sloshing further through thigh-deep waters, he pulled up an oddly shaped gelatinous bubble attached to a twig. Tiny black rings were visible through the clear mucous.
"This is the egg mass for a spotted salamander," Quinn explained. "You can tell it's not a frog because of the double membrane."
To carry on their species, he explained, salamanders undertake a unique procreation ritual. After spending the winter underground in a semi-comatose state, they awaken in spring and start heading to their ancestral vernal pools, the females swollen with unfertilized eggs and the males laden with sperm. The males then perform a "breeding ball," rolling around in the water in groups, before leaving packets of their sperm, called spermatophores, on leaves or sticks in the pool. The ritual culminates with the females, in a technique resembling artificial insemination, taking the spermatophores and inserting them into their bodies to fertilize the eggs.
One pair of spotted salamanders, apparently on their way to carrying out their reproductive destiny, came to Quinn's notice while he turned over rocks in a small stream just below a pond. The second largest of Connecticut's 12 types after the common mudpuppy - which can grow to 16 inches long - spotted salamanders are one of the most widespread kinds, found in all parts of the state.
"She's as big as they get," said Quinn, cradling a 7-inch blue-black creature with vivid yellow spots. "She has not gone into the pool yet. Look how fat she is. She's probably just about to cross the road."
He turned the salamander over to show the animal's bulging sides where the eggs were held. A few minutes later, after returning the female to the stream, Quinn uncovered a male spotted salamander, curled up under a mossy stone beside the stream, probably getting ready to deposit his sperm in the pool.
Overall, Quinn said, salamander numbers are declining due mainly to pollutants entering the waterways where they breed, and loss of the vernal pool and upland habitats they depend on. Surviving on diets of insects, worms, slugs, spiders and millipedes, these furtive, nocturnal carnivores can only benefit from efforts like the "Year of the Salamander" campaign, Quinn believes.
"Everything helps," he said. "It definitely helps bring more awareness. One of the reasons people don't respect the environment is that they don't understand the environment."
Connecticut's 12 salamander species:
• Blue spotted (diploid-endangered; hybrid-special concern)
• Common mudpuppy
• Jefferson (special concern)
• Northern dusky
• Northern redback
• Northern slimy (threatened)
• Northern spring (threatened)
• Northern two-lined
• Red-spotted newt
Year of the Salamander activities:
• Salamander identification workshop for kids at 6:30 p.m., followed by "Salamanders of Connecticut" program by herpetologist Hank Gruner from the Connecticut Science Center at 7 p.m., Blackstone Library, 758 Main St., Branford. Event sponsored by the Menunkatuck Audubon Society. Admission is free. For information, call (203) 457-1699 or send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Salamander hunt, 3-4:30 p.m. April 26, Kellog Environmental Center, Derby. Admission is free. To register, call (203) 734-2513 or send an email to: email@example.com.
• Open Center Day at DEEP Wildlife Division's Sessions Woods Conservation Center, 341 Milford St., Burlington, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 24, will include live salamander displays. For information, call (860) 675-8130.
• Salamander art contest for kids. Connecticut children in kindergarten through fifth grade can enter an original drawing, painting or sketch of a Connecticut salamander species. For information, visit the "Contest Guidelines/Entry Form" area on the "2014 Year of the Salamander" section.
• For information, visit: www.ct.gov/deep, click "Natural Resources," then "Wildlife," then "2014 Year of the Salamander."
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