Sunday, March 10 turned out to be a beautiful, warm, spring-like day for 14 Headwaters Master Naturalists and five guests who enjoyed a very informative outing to Maple Flats Ponds near Sherando with James Madison University Instructor in Biology Billy Flint. Billy’s hope was that we would see at least 6 to 8 species of salamanders and frogs. The ponds and surroundings surpassed his expectations by providing us a look at 10 species all together.
We explored three sinkhole ponds of various sizes and a couple of streams which drain or flow into them. These sinkhole ponds are unique to the western base of the Blue Ridge in our area and form when limestone dissolves locally beneath a mantle of colluvial soils which washed off the mountains. A layer of clay forms several feet below the surface of this area and creates a perched surface water table that reaches up into the sinkholes during the wet season.
A common Eastern Red-Backed Salamander beneath a log along a small stream was our first find. These may or may not have a red stripe on their back and are nocturnal like most salamanders. The ones without a red stripe are called ‘Lead Backs’. Like all salamanders, they’re carnivorous in every stage of their lives.
Billy explained how the three species of mole salamanders (all terrestrial as adults that stay mostly underground) found at Maple Flats have different breeding periods so that the competition for resources is minimized. They only enter the pond areas to breed and lay their eggs. Billy found an adult Spotted Salamander next to a small pond. These are fairly large at 4 to 7 inches and are black with distinctive yellow spots. They mate and lay eggs in February to March and have an elaborate, swimming ‘mating dance’. The other mole salamander species common to the Maple Flats area are the smaller Marbled Salamanders which mate and lay eggs in the fall, and the state endangered Tiger Salamanders that breed in January.
Shelley found a Spring Peeper frog hopping on the leaf litter as we were leaving this first small pond. Only the males call in the chorus we hear each year.
The second pond was much larger, but very heavily grown-in with greenbriers, making access challenging. This pond was currently larger than any of our group had ever seen it before. Billy waded into it and found a salamander larva which was probably a Marbled Salamander. A few Cricket Frogs were found on surrounding soggy ground. These are smaller than Peepers at just over an inch and have more warty skin.
Billy found and held up a large gelatinous mass of salamander eggs with small larvae of the Spotted Salamander.
Kids are usually better at finding things and Merrilee’s son Eli located a typically 5 inch Red Salamander under a rock away from the pond. These showy copper-red salamanders were named the Virginia State Amphibian by Virginia lawmakers last year. They are not to be confused with the Red Eft stage of the smaller Red-Spotted Newt.
A young Northern Dusky Salamander was also among the day’s finds. Billy noted that they’re mostly aquatic and lungless, breathing through their moist skin and mucous membranes. A young Four-Toed Salamander and an aquatic adult male Red-Spotted Newt rounded out our salamander discoveries. The Four-Toed Salamander is named for having only four toes on each back leg. Most salamanders have four toes on each of their front legs but five on the rear. At only 2-3 inches in length, we could not count the toes on Billy’s find but their distinctive white belly with black spots is a giveaway characteristic of this species. They lay their eggs in moss at the edge of the pond and the larvae can then easily wiggle into the water. The aquatic adult Red-Spotted Newts have lungs and are toxic to fish. They can spend up to six or seven years as juvenile, terrestrial Red-Spotted Newt Efts looking for suitable habitat and conditions to reach their reproductive form.
Ben described seeing a tadpole which Billy determined was most likely a Bullfrog considering the time of year. Bullfrogs actually mate in early summer, but their tadpoles often don’t complete metamorphosis until the following summer, and so will remain as tadpoles for a whole year.
We enjoyed about three hours exploring the ponds and all wished we had more time to see what other wonders could be found in these unique habitats.
We are extremely fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic herp guide in Billy Flint. Our sincerest thanks to him for taking the time to share his wealth of expertise and sharp eye for us to experience a bit of the fascinating world of amphibians associated with vernal pools and sinkhole ponds.
– Malcolm Cameron, Cohort III, March 2019
And many thanks to Malcolm for organizing this trip!
Thanks to Cheryl Shull, Eli Lianez, and Debbie Pugh for taking and sending in the great photos below! Click on any one to enlarge it and get a slide show. Uncredited photos are by Adrie.