Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

The Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) and the Small-mouthed Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) are both large species of Ambystomatids (mole salamanders).

The Jefferson Salamander occurs primarily in the northeastern United States, while the Small-mouthed Salamander ranges from Ohio south to the Gulf of Mexico, and west to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

In Canada, both species are rare, being found only in Ontario. Even within this province both of these amphibians have small ranges. Both species are also listed as Endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. Only a mere four other salamander species in the whole of Canada are listed Federally as an Endangered species. This makes the Jefferson and Small-mouth among Canada’s most at-risk salamander species.

In the beginning of May 2015 I headed out on a trip where I aimed to observe both of these species in the wild.

In Ontario, the Jefferson Salamander occurs mainly around the Niagara escarpment in the southern part of the province. As such that was my first stop. When attempting to observe this species, I had to consider that the Jefferson Salamander intergrades with the Blue-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale) creating various polyploid forms. Often DNA analyses is the only way to differentiate these from pure forms. However, locale, size, and other morphology can help determine the species.

On the first day of my trip I arrived in the escarpment around lunch. In a hilly forested area I quickly encountered seven Jefferson Salamanders! These large dark amphibians make for a stunning sight each and every time I came across one.

Other species were also seen such as the Redbacked Salamander (Plethodon cinereus). Both Red and ”lead” forms of this species were seen. Several Yellow-Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) were observed in the area too. One was seen under the same cover as a Jefferson Salamander and two Redbacked Salamanders. The two mole salamanders looked especially large next to the smaller plethodons!

Aside from the Jefferson Salamanders themselves, several egg-masses from this species were seen in a near by pond. It is truly astonishing to witness the next generation of an endangered species out in the wild. Often with such trips, where I observe such amazing finds, the moment is so significant that it takes time to process it. As I write this, I still find that the moment has resonated deeply.

After the search for Jefferson Salamanders concluded, it was time to head on to Leamington. Here I would catch a ferry to Pelee Island. This small island in the middle of Lake Erie is the only place in all of Canada where the Small-mouthed Salamander exists. According to the Species At Risk registry, in the spring of 2000, the Small-mouthed Salamander was noted in three existing breeding grounds on southern Pelee Island and in a remnant forest habitat, representing a total area of occupancy of no more than 5 km2! This constitutes a significant reduction of its range on the island.

Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

As with the Jefferson Salamander, intergrades with the Small-mouthed and Blue-Spotted Salamander has created polyploid forms. However, in the south of the island pure forms still exist, and that is where I was headed! As I wandered over the damp forest floor I quickly spotted three Small-mouthed Salamanders in one area! I was immediately thrilled! As I continued through the wet darkness I soon came upon another and then another. By the end of the night around 30 of these salamanders were seen!

Small-mouthed Salamander (Ambystoma texanum)
Small-mouthed Salamander (Ambystoma texanum)

I have corresponded with others who have went to the island to collect observational records/data on this species and often only one or two individuals are seen. To see so many was beyond my wildest expectations! In all I would go on to see over 40 of them.

Aside from the Small-mouths, many Red Efts (Notophthalmus viridescens) were also seen on the island. Unlike other Efts that I have encountered, the island forms were all dark phased, lacking the bright orange dorsal colouration. The ventral surface was still bright however.

Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens)

On the last day of my trip, when I returned to the mainland I decided to hit the escarpment area one last time. Unlike the previous visit, the weather was not cool and damp. In fact it was very hot and dry! I was not hopeful of seeing many salamanders. However, I headed into the coolest parts of the forest. Here I still encountered two more Jeffersons! A pair of Yellow-Spotteds and several more Red-backs were also seen again!

Being able to witness so many endangered salamanders in one trip is beyond mere articulation! it was such an incredible experience and one I will never forget!

I hope my passion for salamanders will inspire others to get active and involved with their recovery. A recent summary by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), has identified predation and habitat destruction by recently introduced Wild Turkeys as a new threat to the existence of salamanders on Pelee Island. Landowners on the island who want to help the salamanders can do so by making efforts to keep wild turkeys off of their lands.

Other efforts that can help both the Jefferson and Small-mouthed Salamanders can be found here:

By Matt Ellerbeck,

The Search For Endangered Salamanders: Jefferson and Small-mouthed Salamanders

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