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Archive for the ‘Amphibians and Reptiles’ Category

Red-backed salamanders are always a joy to find lying under rocks and beneath the dead leaves in the woods.  They are most frequently seen on moist days in spring and fall.

These woodland salamanders are amphibians but do not lay their eggs or have a larval stage in water.  Adults are lungless and breathe through their skin.  Consequently, moist surroundings are crucial to their survival and they are very sensitive to slight changes in their environment.  As the weather warms or cools, salamanders bury themselves deeper in the ground or under logs.

Years ago, salamanders became associated with fire, probably because they’d seemingly come to life when logs, to which they were clinging, were flung into the fire.  Considered by some to be magical creatures, they’ve been known to exist since the Jurassic period.

These small creatures eat tiny arthropods found in leaf litter.  Their numbers can be quite numerous in eastern American woodlands.  Although they keep a very low profile, salamanders contribute to the biodiversity of their habitat and play an important role in the natural recycling process of the forest. 

Their gentle nature endears salamanders to many.  Scientists see them as bioindicators,  and employ their numbers to indicate the health of woodlands.  Threatened by clear-cutting and extremely vulnerable to fungi and disease, their absence from an ecosystem is cause for concern.  Perhaps because of their fragility and silent presence in the woods, these red-backed salamanders are my favorite amphibians.

Humans are amphibians – half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.
~ C.S. Lewis

For more information about the mythology surrounding salamanders, see Dragonorama.

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The colder weather and accompanying snow this past week has slowed down the activity of cold-blooded creatures.  This little garter snake was found cuddled up under a rock in the mint garden.

It wasn’t moving very quickly, so I was able to pick it up and place it in a container for closer observation.  Over the years, my sons captured numerous snakes under the rocks in our yard.  We’ve also come across garter snakes in the woods and among the wild rose bushes.  Last year I almost stepped on one that was sunning itself on the front steps.

Garter snakes are known to make good pets.  One year, we kept a large garter in a terrarium over the summer months.  They do give off a scent after a period in captivity so it was eventually released back into the wild.

Garter snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning that a mother carries the eggs internally but offspring emerge live with no sign of the shell at birth.  Garters are independent of their mothers as soon as they’re born.  One of my neighbors would frequently dig into a mass of newly born garters while working in her garden.  In northern areas, garters will also congregate in a massive ball with other snakes prior to hibernation.

Garters are mildly venomous.  My youngest son was bitten by them as a boy with no adverse effects.

These snakes are the most widely distributed reptiles in North America, likely due to the fact that they’re not picky eaters. Worms, amphibians, mice, young birds, bugs, fish and eggs are all acceptable fare.

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american toad

Toads have never been popular with humans and females especially.  The thing is, even though toads may be considered ugly creatures, they are actually quite beneficial to gardens and humans.  Much of this has to do with a toad’s diet.

What a toad will eat:

  • ants
  • mosquitoes
  • slugs
  • snails
  • grubs and worms

An adult American Toad, the most common type found here in Nova Scotia and throughout North America, can eat 1,000 insects in one day.  Consequently, just a few toads can have a tremendous effect on insect populations in an area.  A toad’s apetite for slugs and snails is also helpful in controlling these pests in gardens.

Toads can tolerate drier environments than frogs and also have long sticky retractable tongues that they can use to catch insects in flight.  So, how do you attract these darlings to your yard?

  • Allow shallow pools of water to sit in your yard in the springtime.  These temporary pools from excess rain and melting snow are called vernal pools and are all that’s needed for toads to lay their long strands of eggs.  (Frog eggs are laid in clusters).
  • Create piles of dead leaves where toads, which are mostly nocturnal, can bury themselves to keep cool and moist during the day.  They will also bury themselves deep under these as winter approaches.
  • Offer hiding places where toads can stay out of the drying sun.  These can be small caves made from arrangements of stones or overturned terra cotta pots.  Wild areas are also helpful in providing places where toads can remain cool among tall weeds.  Toads like to stay moist, which is a challenge during hot summer months.
  • Refrain from use of pesticides. This last point seems obvious to me, but might not be for gardeners trying to grow fragile non-native plant species.

american toad1

Snakes and loss of habitat are the greatest threat to toads, which can live for up to ten years in the wild.  Try attracting them rather than moving them into your garden from another environment, as they likely won’t survive.   Many toads and frogs will secrete poison to make themselves unpalatable to enemies, so it’s not recommended that you kiss them to see if they’re princes in disguise.

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under stones

Turning over rocks and stones to see what’s living beneath them is a great outdoor activity to get children interested in nature.  Salamanders, ants, spiders, worms and slugs all like to snuggle down beneath stones.  Though each overturning will produce fairly similar results, once they start, children likely won’t be satisfied until they’ve overturned every stone in sight.

During one such session with my grandson last week, I was amazed at the large number of ant tunnels and ants to be found beneath the stones.  Their numbers seem far greater than they used to be.  Good thing there are lots of birds here too.  This spring I’ve already seen flickers and woodpeckers digging for ants in the lawn and woods.   Besides eating great amounts of these insects, flickers are known to keep feather parasites in check by preening themselves with crushed ants.

Salamanders found under stone in mint bed

Frogs and toads also eat their fair share of ants.  Homes can easily be made for these creatures among the stones.  Reptiles also like to dwell beneath stones.  According to my sons, snakes have frequently been found under the rocks at the end of the driveway near the ditch.

One evening years ago, I was startled to see flashlights suddenly brightening the living room window.  As I opened the door, I was relieved to see that it was only our friendly neighbors turning over stones along the flower bed in search of bait for the next morning’s fishing trip.   Besides humans, raccoons are other omnivores that are known to turn over stones in search of hidden treasure, especially in streams.

If you do turn over stones, be sure to put them back in the same place afterwards.  Children will quickly learn to do this if you make it a pre-requisite to turning over the next stone.

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