Elms Environmental Education Center

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Critter of the Month

Every month we highlight a different local animal.

March 2014: Spotted Salamander

Yellow Spotted Salamander
Ambystoma maculatum

Who am I?

I am an amphibian, a clawless, scaleless, jelly-egg laying salamander. Some salamanders spend their entire lives in water, but I only lay my eggs in water and then spend my time underground in the forest. Never too far from water though, I am an amphibian and have to stay moist. I started life as one of a bunch (50-200) of eggs all stuck together in a fancy mud puddle called a vernal pool. The pool I live in will dry out eventually but hopefully not for the four months it took me to grow up and wander off into the woods. You see, when I hatched I had gills just like a fish, I could not breathe air. It takes a long time to grow lungs. Once I had legs and lungs I could leave the pool. I spent a couple of years alone until I was ready to lay eggs myself. Soon "the big night out" was upon me. Seriously, some humans call it the "big night out". The big night out is when all my friends and family return to the same pool where we were born to find a mate and lay eggs. It is usually in late February but certainly will happen on the first night in late winter when it is raining and the air temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually the males get their first and deposit little sacks of sperm and it is my task to choose one and use it to fertilize my eggs. After I lay my eggs the babies will hatch in about 10 days depending on the temperature of the water. I don't stick around and wait for them to hatch, there is a whole lot of forest to explore. My babies are on their own. They will do just fine. Me, I sleep my days away and hunt at night.

Where can you find me?

My family live in the eastern United States and Canada. I am everywhere in Southern Maryland but you usually don't see me because I am a "mole" salamander and live underground in tunnels and burrows that other animals have made. I don't have claws or teeth to dig my own tunnels. If you want to see me your best bet is in late winter (February) when I am heading to my pool to breed. Turn over logs in the water, or just look carefully -- you will see me when I move. In March and April you can catch my babies by slowly pushing your upturned hand into the leaves on the bottom of the vernal pool. Put them back right away so they can grow up to be big, healthy salamanders.

What do I eat?

Insects and worms, basically little things that will fit in my mouth. I don't like vegetables and surprisingly my mother never complained about it.

What might eat me?

Hmm ... I wish I could say that the nasty tasting poison on my skin and my bright yellow spots keeps other critters from looking to me for dinner, but I would be too optimistic. Critters such as herons, other birds, raccoons, skunks and snakes will eat me if they can stomach my foul taste. Sometimes they learn their lesson and eat one of my family and then never again, unless they are really hungry.

Cool reasons why I am the critter of the month!

  • I am usually the first amphibian to lay eggs in the spring.
  • After I mature I return to the same vernal pool where I was born to lay my own eggs.
  • I have a sticky poison on my skin that can cause a rash like poison ivy. It makes me taste really nasty.
  • I make a lousy pet because I live underground and am only active at night.


April 2014: Osprey/Fishhawk

Pandion haliaetus

Who am I?

I am bird, see me fly. You've probably seen me around as I tend to hang out with friends and family and am none too afraid of people. Don't get too close though or I will get upset and start squawking. Especially if I am sitting on my nest, don't make me fly off and leave my babies! My mate and I are together for life and we make a good team. He will bring me food when I am sitting on the two to four eggs I have laid. Once my babies hatch they will start flying in a couple of months (8-10 weeks). My nests are usually on top of a pole or dead tree so I can see you coming. If you can, make a nest pole for me in the water. My children will appreciate it when they grow up. Speaking of which, it takes them a long time to mature, usually 3-4 years. If there are no places to build nests my children may have to wait a few years before they start having children of their own.

Where can you find me?

Around water. Any water; fresh, salty, big, small, running, still. If there are fish I will be nearby. Except in the winter when I leave Southern Maryland and fly south to Florida. I return during the first week of March. My extended family can be found on every continent, except Antarctica. We have spread out more than any other raptor, except maybe the Peregrine Falcon.

What do I eat?

Mostly I eat fish. I am well suited for this with toes that can point backwards and barbs that keep slippery fish from slipping out of my grasp. I can hover in place like a humming bird, and dive feet first to catch my dinner. I can even close my nostrils so no water gets in. I can carry a fish that is 14 inches long and weighs over four pounds! Not easily, mind you, but I can. Hopefully an Eagle won't see me carrying such a big fish because he will try to steal if from me. Eagles are lazy. I hate eagles.

What might eat me?

Nothing. I am the queen of the sky, a top level predator. I suppose if I am injured there are furry predators that might try to eat me. I wish them luck.

Cool reasons why I am the critter of the month!

  • I can bend my wings while flying to shade my eyes from the sun.
  • I am the harbinger of spring, arriving during the first week of March.
  • When I am carrying a fish I will point its head in the direction I am flying so it doesn't slow me down.



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