What does a poem know about salamanders?

This article first appeared in The Washington Island Observer.

During these cold and snowing days, after all the holidays are over and kids are back in school, poetry can be a hopeful companion because there are so many poems about spring. These poems remind us that warmer days will indeed come again, and once again we will marvel at the earth’s “experiment of Green” (Emily Dickinson).

Feeling a bit sleepy and downcast one recent winter afternoon, I searched for some spring poems and stumbled upon one by John Engels called, “When in Wisconsin Where I Once Had Time.” In it, he gruffly catalogues Wisconsin’s birds and amphibians only to join the muddy spring with his own demise. Yet, in the middle of this brutal poem, he describes eloquently the salamander: “Each April, on the first / rainy night I lantern-hunt for salamanders / where they hide, toewalking the bottom / mucks and muds.”

With these lines, I was returned to summer at the Art and Nature Center, when a young teenager brought in a bluespotted salamander. While the ANC gets a lot of donations of garter snakes and toads, blue-spotted salamanders are rare visitors because they are especially secretive animals. They spend most of their life under rocks or logs. And despite their curious blue spots, they do a good job at blending in with the mud and shadows.

As poet Engels suggests, early spring is the best time to spot a blue-spotted salamander. The first spring rain after the ice has melted is a signal to these reticent creatures that it is time to mate— one of the only times a blue-spotted salamander will come out from hiding.During this spring rain, when the trees and birds begin to buzz with a general excitement, the blue-spotted salamanders go hunting for a good vernal pond to mate in. They choose vernal ponds because these temporary pools of water created by melted snow are less likely to be home to predators like fish and frogs. After mating — a ritual that includes the male salamander rubbing his chin on the female’s head — the female salamander will deposit her eggs in clumps of a dozen on underwater rocks, roots, or mud. During a breeding season, a female salamander can lay up to 300 eggs. (Interesting side note: blue-spotted salamanders can breed with other closely-related

salamander species, producing all-female hybrids. These females can reproduce without a male salamander present through a process called parthenogenesis, producing offspring genetically identical to the mother.) After three to five weeks, depending on the temperatures, the eggs will hatch, and larvae will stay in the vernal pond until they are fully developed. They will eat whatever they can find there, including small crustaceans, worms and insects. But even in the relative safety of a vernal pond, developing salamanders face many predators, including diving beetles, newts and other salamander larvae. After two to three months, the larvae that survive will metamorphose into adults and go find a new home away from the vernal pond they were hatched in.

So while summer may seem eons away, spring’s first rain may not be so far off. If you keep alert, put on your mukluks, and get out your lanterns, you may get the privilege of watching a blue-spotted salamander searching for a vernal pond.

“Everyday nature” is sponsored by the Washington Island Art and NatureCenter. The Art and Nature Center is dedicated to the promotion, preservation and understanding of the creative arts and natural history of Washington Island.

—Alessandra Simmons