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Dragons of the Northeastern Forest?

Posted on Feb 25, 2017

Do you still consider yourself to be a kid at heart? I definitely have my own “kid” moments when I’m out in the field flipping logs or dip netting pools to see what may be living beneath the surface of the forest floor or a body of water. One species in particular that I love to find in our northeastern forests is the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). Known for their large black bodies spotted with bright yellow dots, this charismatic species is hard to miss when out in the open. However, they are typically only seen out and about once a year; during their spring breeding season, they migrate en masse to their selected vernal pools where males court and females lay large globular egg masses. After the breeding frenzy subsides, the salamanders slink back to their secret lairs only to be seen by keen and fortunate seekers. As the spring progresses, the little egg masses hatch out and small voracious salamander larvae fill the vernal pools, gobbling up mosquito larvae and other invertebrates. From a “kid’s” perspective they are an awful lot like a dragon, wreaking carnage on those unfortunate prey organisms that happen to cross their paths.

Here’s a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)larvae found in a nearby vernal pool.

This brings me to my other “kid” moment. The first time I saw the movie “How to Train Your Dragon” I was a teenager working in local movie theater. We had all the posters in the marquees and I actually got to paint “Hiccup” and his unlikely companion “Toothless” on the glass entry doors to the theater. After looking at many pictures of Toothless, his expressive face with long ears and scaly head protrusions have always stuck in my mind. So when I discovered my first spotted salamander larva, I couldn’t help but exclaim in excitement that I’d found a mini “toothless”!

Here’s Toothless from “How to Train Your Dragon.” Can you see the resemblance? (Minus the wings of course!)

While not technically dragons (remember dragons are considered mythical reptiles), spotted salamander larvae are the dragons of the forests; they are the big, bad predators within their little nursery pools, terrorizing all the insect larvae and other little creatures they share space with. If you let your imagination run wild with that thought, it could make for another great Disney movie!

Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician