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Eastern tiger salamanders, once nearly gone from Maryland, make a comeback

Scientists helped restore the wetlands habitat of this slimy creature with a smiley face.

Eastern tiger salamanders have a smiley face and a very long tail. The amphibian nearly disappeared in Maryland because of development and pollution, but 1,000 to 2,000 now live in the state, according to research. (Emilio Concari/Maryland Department of Natural Resources)
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One rarely seen, colorful salamander species with clownish fixed smiles is prompting a lot of smiles among biologists in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In the 1990s, as development, pollution and evolving land uses intruded on breeding sites, Eastern tiger salamanders — the largest land-dwelling salamanders in North America — almost became extinct in the state. These amphibians are making a significant comeback.

“Salamanders are one of the first species many of us encounter as kids,” noted Scott McDaniel, director of the Susquehannock Wildlife Society in Darlington. “Their seemingly smiling faces and bright colors excite the imagination as you flip a rock over or roll a log to find such a unique treasure hiding underneath.”

“Fluffy or feathered things get more attention than scaly, slimy things,” said DNR biologist Beth Schlimm, who works with numerous reptiles and amphibians. “I’m partial to the scaly, slimy things.”

Salamanders are scaleless, but some secrete a toxic, sticky substance from glands in their tails to ward off predators.

Like other amphibians, tiger salamanders are important to the ecosystem because they are predators to smaller organisms and prey for larger creatures.

“Since they partially breathe through their skin and require wetlands to breed, lay eggs and develop in their larval stages, they are indicators of a healthy habitat,” McDaniel said.

“Tiger salamanders are also very picky about which breeding pools they like,” said Emilio Concari, who volunteers with DNR population surveys.

Schlimm recently explored one of several seasonal wetland areas on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where extensive vegetation management over the past decade helped restore natural breeding habitats of these salamanders.

“Female tiger salamanders need fishless freshwater ponds that have a lot of sunlight for their eggs,” Schlimm said. Egg masses attach to upright vegetation, so water depth is critical. “Too shallow, they dry out; too deep, and sun won’t get to the egg masses.”

Carefully making her way through knee-high water, Schlimm checked sites where their egg masses flourish. Egg mass counts are the most efficient method to answer the question: “How are Eastern tiger salamander populations doing in Maryland?”

“A really rough population estimate would be 1,000 to 2,000 individual tiger salamanders,” said DNR biologist Scott A. Smith. They are concentrated in Caroline and Kent counties.

Tiger salamanders can grow to 14 inches long. They are called “mole salamanders” because they dig underground burrows in loose, sandy soil, where they spend most of their lives. That means they are hard to see in the wild. They come out at night for feeding and during late winter and early spring’s breeding season.

“What stands out the most to me is how they swim through their Delmarva bay wetlands. They use their large rudderlike tail to power through the water much in the same way that an alligator swims,” McDaniel said.

Reflecting on the environmental information being learned by studying Maryland’s tiger salamanders, Schlimm said, “It’s a good lesson on being willing to preserve things that we don’t get to see every day … another reason to protect habitats.”

Learn more

● Warm, rainy evenings during breeding season are the best time to see these rare salamanders. But don’t remove them from the wild.

● Beyond loss of habitats, other serious threats to Eastern tiger salamanders are people who collect them for pets or fishing bait.

● They feed on just about anything they can catch like snails, worms, tadpoles and insects.

● They are one of the rarest salamanders in the Mid-Atlantic region and are considered endangered in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

● Eastern tiger salamanders can live more than 15 years in the wild.

● Easter tiger salamanders are often confused with spotted salamanders, which are smaller and have two parallel rows of spots on their backs.

● When it opens again, the Maryland Zoo has Eastern tiger salamanders: marylandzoo.org/animal/eastern-tiger-salamander.

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