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February 13, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Just in time for Valentine's Day: Salamander love nights

Valentine's Day just happens to coincide with the first amorous stirrings in the amphibian world, as salamanders begin emerging from winter hibernation in search of mates.

If you'd like to see some of these fabulous creatures for yourself, you are in luck. Naturalist Stewart Wechsler has scheduled two salamander outings this Valentine's week. Both are for general-interest nature fans and no equipment other than a flashlight is needed. Kids are welcome.

The first program is on Valentine's Night, from 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday. The second is from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday. For both, meet in front of the Camp Long Lodge building, on Southwest Dawson Street, just east of 35th Avenue Southwest in West Seattle. The Salamander Love Night adventures are priced from $1-$20, your choice, based on ability to pay.

If you like this sort of thing, the most beautiful book I have ever read on salamanders and all things wetlands is Swampwalker's Journal, A Wetlands Year, by David M. Carroll (Mariner Books, 1999). Winner of the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, Carroll in 2006 won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" for his writing and illustrations, and for good reason. His accounts of watching spring come alive as he wades a series of woodland wetlands and ponds near his home in New Hampshire are pure poetry. His love of salamanders (and turtles) is most evident.

David Carroll's ode to wetland creatures is one of my favorite books

Wechsler started scheduling his salamander outings about 10 years ago, when he was trying to determine when the two so-called Mole salamander species (genus Ambystoma), the Northwestern salamander - A. gracile, and the Long-toed Salamander -A. macrodactylum left their eggs in the pond at Camp Long.

"I checked on February 10th, no eggs. The 11th, no eggs. The 12th, no eggs. On the 14th or the 15th was the first eggs showed up. I then decided that they were perfectly timed for Valentine's night!," Wechsler writes.

He eventually put together the rather dramatic and involved story of salamander courtship:

"I later learned that the males seduce the females into picking up the
sperm packets -- sperathecae -- they place on the pond bottom, with a
courtship dance. The female picks them up with her cloaca, then with
her eggs fertilized, lays them the next night."

About half of the Northwest salamanders are permanently gilled "pedomorphs" and are resident in ponds, Wechsler learned. The rest of them lose their gills and disperse through the forests near their natal pond and come back annually to the pond to meet their mate.

"I now know that these salamanders that aren't already in the pond arrive maybe a few weeks early before actual spermatophore exchange, and may stay in the pond a few weeks more. The long-toed salamanders average a couple of days earlier for the egg laying."

Wechsler also will take participants on the tour into the woods to see the western red-backed salamanders -- Plethodon vehiculum -- and the wooded edges, hoping to see an ensatina -- Ensatina escholtzii -- both so-called "Plethodons," or lungless salamanders that breath through their skin and don't breed in a pond.

"Barred Owls are also likely to add some sound effects for the salamander tours," he notes.

Wechsler has also scheduled an owling event at Schmitz Preserve Park, also in West Seattle, ffrom 5-6:30 p.m. Sunday.

For more on Wechsler's nature tours, check his website.

To learn more about amphibians in King County, and the habitat challenge they face, read my story in the Seattle Times.

To learn more about biodiversity in King County, including its amphibian populations, see the county's recent biodiversity report.

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