It is March, cold and muddy, just like a South Carolina upstate winter should be. Our pickup slips and slides in the mud along the river of muscadines but Joey Holmes finesses the two track and we don’t have to engage the four-wheel drive. There’s a hint of mystery and excitement. Joey’s wife’s cousin Leon Cook is here from Maine, and we are on our way to find some spotted salamanders!
Chances are you could live your life in the upstate of South Carolina and never see the official State Amphibian, Ambystoma maculatum. These hidden jewels spend their lives underground in wooded areas. This is oversimplifying things a bit. They have rather specific habitat requirements.
We run a gauntlet of cattle gates with Leon as gate man before Joey parks the truck beside some open flooded timber. Quickly Leon and I gather binoculars, cameras, tripods and cell phones while Joey arms himself with a potato rake for turning over muddy logs. He strides towards the first log with purpose while I whisper to Leon that Joey is like a salamander savant.
“He knows which logs they are under and he turns them in a specific order.”
We work through this temporary wetland with Joey turning over semi-rotten logs adjacent to the water while Leon and I wait for the salamanders. We are not rewarded instantly, but have to work for our prizes.
Winter is the salamander’s mating season. The spotteds work their way down from the forest and hide under logs near temporary wetlands called vernal pools. These pools are filled with winter rainwater now but dry up during the summer, so they contain no fish. This makes them ideal for the salamanders, because there are no fish to eat their jellylike egg clutches.
During this time, the salamanders can be found under logs as they wait to deposit their eggs in the nearby water. Once mating season is over, the spotteds will retreat to their underground home in the forest, where they eat worms and insect larvae.
Joey has herped these vernal pools for well over twenty years. We are soon rewarded with quite a find—two robust and beautiful spotted salamanders practically cheek-to-cheek under one log. Leon and I photograph them in situ, experimenting with flash and camera settings, before Joey takes the salamanders out and places them on top of the log for more photos.
Their little bodies, about seven inches long, feel as cold as ice and surprisingly dry, with bits of rotten wood and dirt sticking to them. The ambient temperature is about 42 degrees. Joey takes a bottle of water from his pocket that is easily twenty degrees warmer than the salamanders and washes them off for the photos. In spite of its relative warmth, you can practically see the spots gasp as he douses them.
We find a total of four spotted salamanders. One is ridiculously fat, and Joey says, “This fat girl hasn’t let go of her eggs yet.”
Leon and I remark on the texture and temperature of the spotteds. They are cool and dry, and with their fabulous spots, they seem like jewels of the Carolina winter. I can’t imagine why everybody isn’t out wearing rubber boots, looking for them with a potato rake.
“Hmmrhh,” Joey rumbles. “Some herpetologists call them gummi lizards.”
I can’t help but laugh at this. They do look and feel like gummi bears.
Joey keeps careful records, and knows the salamanders by their spot pattern. They have a dark brown to black background color with two lines of offset yellow spots along their top line. Near the head, the spots may be orange or almost red. I marvel that he can tell them apart by their patterns. But in real life, he has a little help from his meticulous record-keeping. He takes photos he will later compare to past photos to see if he has ever found these individuals before.
Spotted salamanders share this wetland with a similar species, marbled salamanders. I tell him I hope we can find some marbled and he gestures with the potato rake and says, “They’re more likely to be over there.”
“Why?” asks Leon. “Do they have a different habitat that the spotted?”
“No,” Joey concedes. “They seem to be the same. But they like it over there, perhaps for reasons known only to themselves.”
We don’t locate any marbled salamanders on this trip, but all four of these spotted gems turn out to be new-to-Joey. Fair enough for a cold March 1 in the Upstate, herping in winter.
All salamanders are documented and released unharmed after their glamour shots.
Upon comparing photos of these salamanders, Joey says he has found eleven new-to-him spotted salamanders this season.
I will add these individuals to my list of “Spottings” (no pun intended) on my www.projectnoah.org.