Ohio salamanders rely on varied lifestyles to survive

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red-spotted newt
Seen here in its juvenile stage, called a "red eft," the red-spotted newt is native to Ohio and the only newt found in the state. It is fire-engine red as a juvenile but later changes color to olive with some red spots. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, photo)

The three witches in Macbeth had a recipe that called for “eye of newt and toe of frog.”

Together they made for “a charm of powerful trouble,” according to those stirring the pot. It makes you wonder what Shakespeare had against amphibians. He could have written “newts are cute,” and it would have rhymed.

And they are rather cute, especially the red-spotted newt, a subspecies of salamander. In its juvenile stage, it’s called a “red eft” for its fire-engine red color. They’re the only newts native to Ohio and can be found all over the state. They’re the most common kind of salamander in West Virginia and the most commonly seen of the salamanders in Pennsylvania.

“For little kids, salamanders are often their first real hands-on experience with wildlife,” said Brian Banbury, executive administrator of information and education for the ODNR Division of Wildlife.

They’re also a way to connect with other species that are much beloved by children but unfortunately went extinct millions of years ago.

“Reptiles and amphibians are our closest link to dinosaurs,” said Banbury, who admits to being “that kid.”

He was fascinated by the newts and salamanders he found by the creek on his grandfather’s farm in Ashland County. Which could explain why he grew up to be so involved in herpetology.

There are 25 species of salamander in Ohio, he said. Each of the 88 counties has some, but there are different subspecies in each part of the state. Some can only live in the southern and eastern parts of the state that the glaciers didn’t reach.

The red-spotted newt is the only kind of newt found in Ohio. Like other salamanders, they have soft, moist skin that allows them to absorb water into their bodies; they don’t drink. They have lungs but are also able to absorb oxygen from the water through the skin.

Dual life

Salamanders are amphibians, which is Latin for “dual life,” Banbury said. Like their amphibian family members, frogs and toads, their eggs all hatch in water, and the larvae all have gills.

Some salamanders lose those gills and develop lungs, at which point they leave the water and live on land. Or not. Some, like the eastern hellbender, have lungs but stay in the water all their lives. Mudpuppies also have lungs but retain a spectacular set of gills. They are also lifelong water dwellers. Still others, the “lungless” family of salamanders, don’t have lungs or gills but breathe through the skin and the lining of the mouth and throat.

Red-spotted newt

The red-spotted newt doesn’t fit any of these patterns. Born in the water, it loses the gills and develops lungs, then moves onto land as the aforementioned red eft. At this stage, its skin becomes more dry and rough. Its bright red color says “toxic” to anything that might be inclined to eat it. But its skin can also produce actual toxin, just in case. So it’s not afraid to roam around wooded areas eating worms, ants, centipedes, whatever it can find. Decaying wood “is a smorgasbord for little efts” because of all the insects, Banbury said.

It stays in this juvenile stage for two to three years. Then its skin turns soft and slimy and more of an olive color, with some red spots. Its tail turns from round to broader and wedge-shaped. After three years, the red-spotted newt returns to the water to breed — and remains in the water for the rest of its life. Going from aquatic to land animal, then back to aquatic, is what makes the red-spotted newt unique, Banbury said.

Hellbenders

Meanwhile, the eastern hellbender has been in the water the whole time. It lives in large, swift-flowing streams, mostly in the “unglaciated” parts of Ohio that have hillier terrain and water systems that are less susceptible to pollution and agricultural run-off. The eastern hellbender is listed as endangered in Ohio, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana and threatened in Alabama.

“They don’t do much but are neat creatures,” Banbury said.

They pretty much just lay under rocks waiting for fish, snails and small crustaceans, like crayfish, to come along. They breed in the fall, each female laying about 500 eggs. Unfortunately, the fish, crayfish and even insects that the hellbenders eat turn the tables on them and chow down on the large egg masses.

A conservation effort is underway to take some of those eggs to zoos and other facilities that hatch them, then return the young to their native streams, Banbury said.

If Shakespeare had a disdain for amphibians, think about whoever named the hellbender. That’s in addition to some of the unsavory nicknames it has acquired, like “mud devil,” “devil dog” and “snot otter.”

The mudpuppy at least has a cute name. And cute appearance. Their gills look like large, feathery plumes that sway in the current.

“Think of a Victorian lady’s hat,” Banbury said.

They eat the same things as hellbenders, but are not quite as susceptible to pollution and changing environment, he said.

Herpetologist

Banbury taught herpetology at Hocking College and spent 20 years working as a wildlife officer and investigator for Ohio Wildlife District 3. As a naturalist at Mohican and Malabar Farm state parks, he was constantly taking groups out to look for amphibians, reptiles and other wildlife that some might consider icky.

In his career, “I was literally all over the state of Ohio, herpin’,” he said.

Banbury was appointed to his new position with the Ohio Division of Wildlife last fall. He’s in charge of four huge sections: Communications, outdoor skills, graphics and customer engagement.

“We cover publications, shooting ranges, hunter and fishing education, birding, wildlife education … you name it! I really have a great and talented staff that care about our citizens and the great outdoors,” Banbury said.

But hearing his enthusiasm when he talks about amphibians and hunting salamanders on grandpa’s farm, you wonder if he’d just rather be herpin’.

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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