Species Spotlight: Local Amphibians

January 13, 2022

By Hannah Royal, Stewardship Associate

Local amphibians

In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have nearly 30 species of frogs and toads and more than 60 species of salamanders. The state’s rich habitat diversity, spanning coast to mountains, supports a wide assortment of wildlife. Here in the Durham – Chapel Hill area, rainy summer nights can be filled with the breeding calls of Cope’s Gray Treefrog and Fowler’s and American toads can be found moving along damp forest floors. Lesser-known amphibians, salamanders, are also a common wildlife neighbor for those willing to look. Lizard-like in appearance, but more frog-like in function with their permeable skin and reliance upon moisture, salamanders are delightful creatures. Fossorial (or burrowing) in nature, gently flipping over natural objects like decomposing logs and leaf litter could reveal one of these secretive animals. Amphibians are charismatic animals that are generally well-liked by humans for various reasons, be it their vocalizations and ability to jump, vivid colorations and patterns, ties to rain and luck in some cultures, or general cuteness. However, many of our activities directly harm their populations. Habitat loss, diseases, invasive species, and chemical contaminants are all serious threats to amphibians.

Aside from their appeal to the masses, amphibians are important components of their habitats. With permeable skin and life cycles dependent on water, these animals are sensitive to environmental pollutants. The presence or absence of them can give us insight into the quality of local waterways, such as the decimation of the Neuse River Waterdog in this region. Economically, toads are important because of the large amounts of insects they consume, often feeding on crop and horticultural pests. Some salamander species play an important role in carbon sequestration through their role as predators on the forest floor.

In the Triangle region of North Carolina, the four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) is a local Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in North Carolina. SGCN wildlife score above a conservation threshold determined by biologists. This indicates that these species need further research and/or protections because they are rare or at risk of extinction. The four-toed salamander is found throughout North Carolina, but sightings are uncommon and scattered. They can be found around wetlands, bogs, and forests adjacent to those habitats, often laying eggs under moss above water. Since their life cycle is dependent on water and neighboring forest, continuity of habitat from one to the other is crucial for this species. There have been two documented sightings of four-toed salamanders at a TLC nature preserve in Orange County. TLC’s land protection work, along with other agencies and organizations, aims to protect large and contiguous pieces of land in the Triangle region. These protected properties provide large swaths of continuous habitat that many wildlife species require to persist.

Although you could easily find some amphibians during warmer months, there is also a chance during the migration and breeding season. Triggered by slightly warmer and wetter weather, amphibians emerge from brumation (winter hideout in a state of torpor) in search of mates and breeding spots. Because of this, mid-winter in North Carolina through early Spring is a great time to find adult amphibians. We usually think of winter as hibernation for wildlife or around here, a great time for birding. It is in fact, a fantastic time of year to put on your muck boots and head outdoors in search of amphibians. Aside from the potential to encounter a breeding amphibian, one might be fortunate enough to hear the mesmerizing breeding choruses of frogs and toads. This commences in late January through to summer. Check out local ponds and wetlands after sunset (especially after/during rain) and listen in! Commonly heard frog/toad species include the Upland Chorus Frog, Spring Peeper, and various toad species. Familiar salamander sightings are the Red-backed and Northern dusky species.

 

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