A member of the mole salamander family, Jeffersons range in size from 4-7 inches and are a grayish black in color with small, pale blue flecks on their sides. Normally, as their family name implies, they spend most of the year underground. Mole salamanders will live in chipmunk, vole or mole tunnels or other underground crevices that stay cool and damp. They are very secretive and only venture out in mid-February (although as early as late December in some regions) for the breeding season.
At this time of year, Jefferson salamanders head towards vernal ponds (temporary water sources) to lay their eggs. The males deposit a spermataphore (or sperm packet) on the bottom of the pond, which is picked up by a female to fertilize her eggs with. The female will then find a submerged clump of vegetation or sticks and deposit a gelatinous mass of from 40-70 eggs. This egg mass looks like a double handful of clear jello filled with black dots. Each of those "dots" has the potential to develop into a larval Jefferson within a couple of weeks.
Although the eggs appear to be well protected in their jelly-like casings, they are in fact very sensitive to any disturbance. If the egg mass falls from its plant moorings to the pond bottom, the eggs will become silted and smother. If the mass is deposited too close to the surface of the pond and a late freeze occurs then the eggs will be destroyed.
Amphibians are great indicator species of the overall health of an ecosystem. They are very sensitive to pollutants in our waterways and scientists have noticed a steady decline in many amphibian species populations in the past decade. Coupled with physical destruction of amphibian breeding habitats, the outlook for many amphibians is not good.
Many people are surprised at how important even small bodies of water are as amphibian breeding sites. Little puddles that may only contain water for a month or so may be the only breeding water source for local populations of amphibians. I have found toad & frog eggs in tire ruts on old logging roads. If these puddles and ruts are filled in then it could be the death sentence for several species in a given area.
As we head into March and April and the temperature increases, amphibian breeding activity will shift into high gear. If you're interested in observing amphibians during this time, start by going out on a rainy evening (gentle drizzle as opposed to torrential downpour) and cruising along rural back roads. Better yet, if you have access to a pond, take a slow walk around it on a rainy evening. Listen as well as look, for the calls of breeding frogs and toads are varied and very interesting! You'll be surprised at what you find.
The Highway Naturalist
Even though it is still the winter and everything looks dead, little signs of spring are starting to emerge. The first of these (at least in my neck of the woods) is the Jefferson Salamander.