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Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: February 2nd, 2019, 10:49 am
by Jefferson
Note: the video companion to this post can be viewed on youtube at:

Snow covered the mountains of Western Virginia about two feet deep as Bethany and I left for Michigan to visit my family over Christmas break. Curiously enough, while the Old Dominion’s hills were covered in beautiful, glistening snow that revealed the land’s contours, the fluffy stuff disappeared as we drove through West Virginia’s rugged hills and on into Eastern Kentucky, where we made our first stop.

Snow Mountains!

The forty-degree weather couldn’t deter us from pursuing our target species in the frigid stream below and we hiked into a beautiful hardwood stream ravine bounded by caves and rock faces, the crystal-clear stream, rocks tinted teal by minerals, below. We first happened upon some two-lined and dusky salamanders after flipping dozens of rocks near a cave entrance, but our luck improved markedly when we began searching a small tributary to the stream, perhaps two or three feet wide and barely two inches deep in the center. Within five minutes, we’d turned up some larvae of our target species, the Kentucky Spring Salamander, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus duryi. Despite the biting cold, we also flipped a lethargic Green frog beneath a small submerged rock. Perhaps because the water flows directly from the caves and rockfaces, the frogs overwinter under rocks so as not to freeze (cave water doesn’t freeze except in extreme cold snaps).

Around the twists and turns in the winding stream we turned rocks, our hands turning icy as we climbed the hillside with every small cascade. At a spot where a small seepage came out of the hillside and merged with the tributary, Bethany overturned a large rock, and beneath it, a fluorescent orange-red salamander! An adult Kentucky Spring! The beast had the classic look of all the pictures I’d seen of them before–the orange-red eyes, the lack of spots on the back, the chunky body, much fatter than the Northern subspecies. We were ecstatic!!

Kentucky Spring Salamander-Northeast Kentucky

With pictures aplenty, we climbed back out of the ravine and continued herping the picturesque cave streams for fun, sighting several more larvae of the Kentucky Spring and several Two-lined salamanders, including the one pictured below.

Cave stream habitat

Southern Two-lined

From Kentucky, we cruised into Ohio through the bustling hamlet of Portsmouth, at the mouth of the mighty Scioto River. A perfunctory check of a small stream in the Southern Ohio foothills at sunset yielded another few two-lined salamanders. Nightfall saw us at a campground cabin along the Ohio River as the coal barges thundered by, along the sliver of flat land a half-mile wide before the imposing hills on either side of the river rise above the valley.

In the morning, as the sun rose above the river and the eastern sky toward West Virginia lit up orange and pink, Bethany and I held a bluegrass jam session on the cabin porch before heading north to see Serpent Mound, a Native American earthwork constructed in what is today Adams County, Ohio, on the edge of the Appalachian Plateau, long before European settlement that most paleontologists believe was meant to help the early societies keep track of agricultural harvesting schedules. For those of you who have seen this earthwork, you can appreciate the eerie wonder one can get from looking over the landscape of hills and farms and imagining it is still all woods, blocking out the sounds of Ohio route 73, seeing the Native Americans there below you, translucent and watching the sunrise on a solstice day.

In the biting cold that morning, we only stayed about forty-five minutes, hiking some of the woods around the mound and climbing an observation tower to take the picture of the impressive structure above. The amount of labor necessary to construct this mound with only rudimentary tools is truly astonishing, especially for those of us who have ever tried to move dirt within the confines of a 20’x20′ garden!

Upon returning home to Michigan, there was no snow on the ground, but temperatures were much too cold for herping. Visits with extended, time lounging with family, copious amounts of Chess, and planning for the now-imminent California trip kept us busy. Then we turned south before New Year’s to visit with Bethany’s family, stopping in Southwestern Ohio along the way both to see Streamside Salamanders, a lifer for Bethany, and meet up with a friend who graduated college early and lives in Cincinnati.

Stopping at a small reserve outside the city, we were accompanied by a young park employee who knew nearly everything about the park’s birds, herps, and natural history, pointing out different types of rock due to glacial movement, and identifying birds by flight pattern. After striking out in the first wetland, the edge of a small pond, where a tiny seepage flowed in, yielded a couple of our target species, the Streamside Salamander, while a board in the adjacent woods had a third, larger adult hiding under it.

Streamside Salamanders

After a double-date with my friend from Cincinnati, we continued our southward journey to visit with Bethany’s family in Tennessee. During the course of our visit, we also took a trip to a nearby secret herping spot with one of Bethany’s friends, and despite the cold weather, we turned up an early-season (New Year’s is about as early as it gets) Spring Peeper and one Four-toed Salamander with most of its tail missing, the first Four-toed I’d seen since 2011. We also planned to hit another larger wetland, but the presence of multiple duck hunters dissuaded us, as we didn’t want to spoil their hunting.

Spring Peeper

Tennessee Four-toed

We continued our visit thereafter, but that Four-toed wrapped up our wintertime herping stint, which saw us hit spots in three states and nab two lifers between us. We returned to Virginia after the New Year with some great memories of winter break 2018/19!

Happy herping you all!

Re: Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: February 3rd, 2019, 4:57 am
by BillMcGighan
A refreshing, midwinter shot of eastern outdoors; script and pics. :thumb:

Re: Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: February 9th, 2019, 5:48 pm
by Josh Holbrook
Those streamsides are great - such an interesting Ambystomatid.

Re: Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: February 13th, 2019, 5:02 pm
by Jimi
Good times!

Brrrr. It might be questionable (but also manageable...) from a biosecurity perspective, but if you want to keep doing that cold-water stuff you might explore the purchase of some neoprene gloves. You lose the tactile sensation, don't feel much anyway when the hands go numb. Plus the gloves protect from slices caused by sharp rocks.

This got me wondering:
Serpent Mound...looking over the landscape of hills and farms and imagining it is still all woods
When the people who built it were living there I suspect it was heavily cleared and cultivated. They probably would have left the shallowest rockiest soils alone, and no doubt there would have been plenty of oldfields and early-seral forest regenerating on fertility-depleted sites, but I think an observer would have seen a whole lot of corn, beans, and squash. And a whole lot of farmers working those fields. I think most anthropologists nowadays think the human population of the continent was 50 to 100 million back then. An awful lot of them lived in the Mississippi Valley & its tributary valleys.

It gives one some hope in the recuperative powers of what nature will be left, after the inevitable demise (and orgy of consumption) of our own civilization...

Anyway - thanks for the report, and I'm glad you guys are getting around and having fun. The life you live is the time you spend - it's good to dwell in the present.

Re: Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: February 13th, 2019, 8:51 pm
by Bryan Hamilton
Sorry for the derail but pre-contact human population densities in the America's fascinate me. And I grew up right outside Portsmouth, pretty close to serpent mound. So I kind of love this post. Serpent mound is built on a meteor impact site too. Honestly the place kind of creeps me out. No disrespect intended. I am properly awed and amazed.

This paper just came out. The collapse of native societies in the america's changed the climate AND caused the little ice ages.

Koch, A.; Brierley, C.; Maslin, M.M.; Lewis, S.L. Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492. Quaternary Science Reviews 2019, 207, 13-36, doi:

Re: Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: February 14th, 2019, 3:07 pm
by Jefferson
Thanks for the kind comments guys! Streamsides are awesome critters for sure--so unique in the niche they occupy. As for Serpent Mound, I suppose me looking over the landscape and imagining it all in woodlands is more of a romanticized version of the past that never existed--except for before the Native Americans crossed the Bering land bridge. Southern Ohio is a wonderfully kept secret in the outdoor enthusiast world and is highly underrated in many respects (history, herping, scenery). It's sad that it's been hollowed out so much by the same ailments as the rest of Appalachia, namely opiates, but still a sentimental place for me--my first European ancestors in North America settled in Pike County, and one married a Native American woman in Chillicothe (1830s). I'll have to give that paper a read sometime, Bryan!

Anyway, happy herping, and look out for a post in about two weeks regarding our upcoming trip to the Golden State!

Re: Winter Break Happenings-Eastern US Salamanders

Posted: March 20th, 2019, 7:12 am
by FrogO_Oeyes
To clarify, the paper cited above doesn't blame the LIA on the collapse of American populations. It implicates a huge decline in population and subsequent revegetation for the worst effects of a cooling period caused by other factors. I've already seen the paper laughed off because American populations were "at most 10 million people" [most recent estimates hover around 6-15 TIMES that number, pre-Columbian], and because the LIA was caused entirely by natural solar cycles [even if solar cycles bear brunt of blame, it would not eliminate other effects, including those of this paper]. I found it a very interesting paper and was pleasantly surprised by the volume of related previous work it cited. It's not really something which can be brushed off as preliminary and not independently corroborated, although the combination of data may thus far be somewhat unique.