Salamanders are like the canary in the coal mine

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(ABOVE: Ohio’s 24 salamander species, which include the smallmouth salamander, shown here, offer clues on the quality of the state’s environment. Photo: Brian MacGowan, Purdue University.)

COLUMBUS — Explore Ohio’s rich diversity of salamanders and you’ll discover more than the creatures themselves. You’ll find good signs — and red flags — on the quality of the state’s environment,.

Ohio State University Wildlife Specialist Marne Titchenell says salamander species call Ohio home.

Titchenell, who works in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, is co-author of Getting to Know Salamanders in Ohio: Life History and Management, a book aimed at woodland owners, nature lovers and others.

Rarely seen

“Salamanders are silent and spend most of their lives hidden, so people rarely see them,” Titchenell said. “But they’re there. And they’re often quite abundant.”

Getting to Know Salamanders (22 pages, $7.50) gives details on Ohio’s common species, how to see them, where to see them and how to take care of the places they live. It’s published by Ohio State University Extension and can be bought through the organization’s county offices or its online eStore, http://go.osu.edu/salamander.

Where to look

Salamanders are long-tailed amphibians that live, like their cousins the frogs and toads, on land, in water or both. Forest floors and streams, ponds and pools in woods are where they’re usually found.

Ohio’s species total is half that of Georgia, which has more salamander types than any other state. But it’s twice that of, say, Michigan or Ontario, Canada.

Salamanders prey on invertebrates such as insects and worms, said Titchenell.

Salamanders, in turn, are food for larger animals, she said.

Show me a sign

And they often hold clues to a place’s ecology.

“Salamanders can be important environmental indicators due to the permeability of their skin and eggs,” Titchenell said. “Water and air pass easily from the environment through their skin. This makes them very susceptible to toxins or changes in their environment.”

For example, a two-lined salamander found living under a rock by a stream is an indicator of good water quality in that stream.

“If the water quality was poor, that salamander wouldn’t be there,” Titchenell said.

Disease, pollution, habitat loss and introduced species are salamanders’ biggest threats. So limiting pollutants, providing habitat and controlling non-native invasive species are ways to lend salamanders a hand, Titchenell said.

She and co-author Sarah Lehnen write in their book, for instance, that “conservation of forest pools is one strategy that can help Ohio’s salamanders.” Lehnen is a former graduate student.

Common species

The state’s common salamander species include the spotted salamander, redback salamander, northern dusky salamander and red-spotted newt.

Of note, the red-spotted newt has both a red-colored, land-dwelling juvenile phase called an eft and a greenish adult phase that spends most of its time in the water.

Far rarer are the green salamander, cave salamander, eastern hellbender and blue-spotted salamander, which are endangered, and the midland mud salamander, which is threatened, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“Wildlife viewing is one of my favorite activities,” Titchenell said. “Like chasing frogs or crayfish in a stream or pond — who hasn’t done that? — searching for salamanders under rocks along a stream or under logs in a forest is just as fun.”

Be gentle if you do it, she added. Put rocks or logs back as you found them.

Do not touch!

Find a salamander in the great outdoors? Fight the urge to pick up and hold what you find. Why:

  • Certain chemicals on your skin can hurt salamanders due to the sensitivity of their skin.
  • Some species, such as the red-spotted newt, secrete chemicals that can irritate your skin.
  • Handling any of Ohio’s endangered salamander species is prohibited by law in order to keep them safe.

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