Soon, cottony masses of eggs, usually attached to a stick or a branch, will be seen under the surface of the vernal ponds used as breeding grounds by the spotted salamanders. The eggs hatch a few weeks after being deposited.
"Larval spotted salamanders have feathery gills on the outside of their bodies," Barker said. "They live underwater, feeding and growing for up to four months. Then they metamorphose into a juvenile form with lungs and strong legs," and emerge from the ponds and crawl into the forest.
The salamanders mature in two or three years, and begin their own annual migrations to the ponds of their birth to reproduce.
The Barkers plan to return to Kanawha State Forest this weekend to see how activity at the ponds is progressing with the expected arrival of female spotted salamanders. "We want to be there, as Frank calls it, when the dancing girls arrive," Carolyn Barker said.
The spring migration of the spotted salamander also marks the approximate start of mating season for other species of amphibians.
"Wood frogs will be having their mating frenzy, and spotted newts will be feasting on wood frog eggs," she said. "It's quite a sight to see when it all unfolds."
The duck-like songs of wood frogs can be heard echoing through the forest, along with the shrill, birdlike chirps of northern peepers -- tiny frogs marked with dark Xs on their backs.
Spotted salamanders are slate colored, with two irregular rows of round yellow spots on their backs, from head to tail. They can reach 8 inches in length, and have been known to live 20 years or more in the wild, and a decade or more longer in captivity.
According to the website for Marshall University's Herpetology Lab, female spotted salamanders deposit up to 250 eggs in gelatinous masses that are sometimes attached to submerged vegetation. Eggs generally hatch in four to six weeks, and larvae transform in two to four months.
Spotted salamanders are common throughout the eastern United States. In some urban areas, special steps are taken to protect the amphibians as they crawl across roads to reach their vernal breeding ponds. In Amherst, Mass., for instance, volunteers manned bucket brigades to carry the salamanders across a busy street until a pair of tunnels was installed under the roadway, allowing the salamanders to safely make the crossing on their own.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.