The Peace Country’s Secretive Salamander

By John Hallett, ACA

The time: 300 million B.C. Alberta looks very different than it does today, with towering tree ferns waving in the warm, moist, tropical air. Suddenly, a lizard-like creature over 3 m long comes waddling out of the jungle vegetation and slides into a shallow pool. It’s a prehistoric salamander, and they rule their prehistoric world millions of years before dinosaurs arrive on scene. As we fast forward to the present, dinosaurs and ice ages have come and gone, but the giant salamander’s descendants are still around and can be still found right here in Alberta, in the Peace River valley!

Salamanders are a type of amphibian and resemble a typical lizard in form—having an elongated body, four limbs and a long tail. Unlike lizards, salamanders lack scales and have smooth skin that is moist to the touch. Because of their glandular skin that is water permeable, amphibians tend to live in cooler and wetter environments than most reptiles. Like reptiles, amphibians are ectotherms, which mean they cannot regulate their own body temperature from within. Instead they derive their desired temperature from their environment—air, water, substrate, or exposure to the sun.

The long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) is one of two species of salamander found in Alberta. Barely 12 cm long, the long-toed salamander is hardly a giant, and is so secretive and scarce that few people have ever seen one! The range of the long-toed salamander in Alberta was believed to be restricted to the foothill valleys and mountain passes of the Rocky Mountains. It was only in the 1990’s that a small population was found in scattered ponds and dugouts in the Peace River valley, east of Hines Creek and south of Fairview.

Long-toed salamanders hide under objects, underground or in forest litter during the day and emerge to hunt for worms and insects at night. They’re not picky—anything they consider edible and can fit into their mouth will be eaten. In spring, adults have been known to migrate over a kilometer to ponds to find mates, breed and lay their eggs, which are attached to underwater twigs or plant stems. When the eggs hatch, the young larvae look very different from their parents. At their earliest stages of development they have no limbs and use their tail to swim. As they begin their metamorphosis—a process of drastic change in form—their front and back limbs develop and later their gills disappear as lungs form. Once the lungs form and gills are absorbed, the young salamanders must go to the pond’s surface to breathe air. It can be a race against time to complete the process of metamorphosis before their breeding pond dries up! Under good developmental conditions, most young salamanders will emerge successfully from their natal ponds in late summer, as miniature replicas of their parents. Come fall, young and adults alike will seek out underground retreats that provide protection from freezing temperatures to hibernate for the winter.

In 2005, Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) surveyed several sites in the Peace River valley with the goal of finding previously unknown populations of long-toed salamander and to increase our understanding of the distribution of the species in the region. We found the species at four sites near the Peace River, just south of the town of Peace River, suggesting that they may be expanding downstream. We also found that the long-toed salamanders south of Fairview preferred small, relatively shallow ponds with abundant aquatic vegetation (e.g., reeds, pond weeds, etc.). These ponds were also located near ravines along the Peace River and surrounded by trees and willows. Not surprisingly, we found that ponds or dugouts with high cattle use resulting in trampled shorelines and poor water quality were not favoured by the salamanders.

The future of the long-toed salamanders in the Peace Country is uncertain because their rarity and restricted distribution make the species especially sensitive to human activities and natural events that impact their habitats. However, any creature tough enough see the dinosaurs come and go shouldn’t be counted out! With a little help and understanding from us, their future in the Peace River region of Alberta can be bright.

Amphibian habitat stewardship

Actively managing your land and water for amphibians, like the long-toed salamander, can save you time and resources, improve animal and plant health, increase land value, and increase returns from farming and ranching inputs. Want to know more about amphibians and implementing habitat stewardship on your property? Read Amphibians on my Land: Habitat Stewardship in Agricultural Landscapes

A hard copy of Amphibians on my Land: Habitat Stewardship in Agricultural Landscapes can be obtained by contacting Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Information Centre at 1-877-944-0313 (toll-free) or [email protected].