Early spring trilling of frogs is not to be heard in this forest anymore, despite acres of temporary wetlands. But thankfully other herps have managed to survive the various uses this land has been put to, and its increasing isolation from other fragments of habitat. Box turtles find our moist lowland forest has everything they need, and I was lucky enough to witness the very early emergence of this male turtle on a warmish day over a week ago.
All my other records of the first spring Box turtles are in April; as it turns out this fellow was a little too quick to come up, and the following day he dug back down a bit as the temps dropped again.
As you can see from the pic above, it was just chance that I happened to spot him. Though he had the energy to dig out of “brumation” (reptile hibernation), he was still too cold and sluggish to move any further. This behavior is not unusual; brumation in box turtles is something of a process. Cold fall days will send them below ground, only to emerge again when it warms. I have one record of a Boxie up and about on a warm day in December.
You might not think of salamanders when it’s cold, but with late winter’s first warmish rains they head to their breeding ponds. The small spring fed pool above is the only stable breeding site I know of in this forest. Though there’s a lot of water pouring through as runoff, it’s not clean and dries up relatively fast. I’ve been trying to keep it the little pool useful for the sallies with a bit of maintenance. A yearly scooping out of sediment and black walnuts keeps it from reverting to the stinking black muckhole it was years ago.
Though the pool has a lush growth of algae, it’s apparently not a problem and seems to be helpful; when I scooped some out many tiny larvae were hiding in its strands. This pool may be used by at least two species, the Cave Salamander Eurycea lucifuga, and the Streamside Salamander Ambystoma barbouri. Cave Salamander larvae first hatch inside the shallow cave from which the spring flows, and move down into the pool as they mature. These larvae can be seen even in the middle of winter in the pool at the mouth of the spring, since the water temperature fluctuates less here .
The salamander larva above was recently scooped from the pool for observation. Not being an expert, I can’t tell you which species it is. But it could be related to the lovely creature (pic below) that was accidentally uncovered nearby, while planting Spicebush. This Streamside salamander was sheltering under a length of bark tucked up against a fallen trunk; it’s fat chunkiness is typical of the Mole salamanders, genus Ambystoma. The adults are seldom seen because, like moles, they spend most of their lives in underground burrows. Streamside salamanders are part of a complex of closely related species (including the Tiger salamander), and are found in a small range that spans northern Kentucky, and bits of southern Ohio and Indiana.
Mole salamanders have been the subject of some fascinating genetic research that has coined the term “kleptogenesis”. It’s latin for gene-stealing, which is one way to describe the behavior of a 5 million year old Ambystoma lineage that’s all female. This Great Lakes centered population produces offspring that are mostly copies of the mother, but incorporate genetic material from males of three other Ambystoma species (making them polyploid). These unisexual salamanders defy our traditional notion of a species, and researchers suspect it may be the reason this lineage has persisted so long.
A good link for more: https://www.popsci.com/female-salamander-kleptogenesis
Though we like to put life-forms in a species box, successful hybridization is common in nature and is one path to possible new speciation. Coywolf, anyone?
And for my readers in the midwest – HAPPY SPRING! Be sure to feed the birds.