Tofino Botanical Garden: Northwestern Salamander - the next best thing to the Alligator
by Barb Beasley, Tofino
The next best thing to the alligator in the pond at the Tofino Botanical Gardens is the population of Northwestern Salamanders. It is the real McCoy and salamanders don't bite... humans, at least.
Northwestern Salamanders are among the most common of the seven amphibian species found around Tofino. They begin life as a family of eggs en?capsulated in a spectacular ball of jelly. If not for being wrapped around sedges and sticks in fresh water, many of these perfectly round egg masses could easily be mistaken for Japanese glass balls. The jelly coat protects the embryos and traps heat to hasten their development.
Hatchlings look like tiny fish with one major difference. Their feathery gills stick out from the sides of their bodies. It is quite a bold evolutionary move to "bare one's chest" so unabashedly. It's a result of the need to optimize oxygen intake from relatively warm, still waters.
The tbg pond is full of larval Northwestern Salamanders all year round. They are active at night, under the cover of darkness, sneaking around the bottom of the pond in pursuit of aquatic insects. It usually takes at least one year before the larvae are ready to metamorphose fully into terrestrial animals. Some never do crawl out of the pond. Those, that do, convert their gills to lungs and spend the next few years wandering through the moist undergrowth of the rainforest. They spread out so that everyone gets enough slugs, bugs and slithery worms to eat. Some travel over a kilometer in search of good foraging habitat. You rarely see them because they spend a lot of time underground and in burrows, especially during the dry summer.
By the age of three or four, adults are ready to breed. Dodging the alligator, they gather at the pond, in March. Each male clasps a female to let her know his intentions. If he thinks she's interested, he releases her and deposits a packet of sperm on the bottom. An amorous female picks up the packet and uses it to fertilize her glorious ball of eggs.
The Tofino Botanical Garden pond is like many of the tiny wetlands around here. Filled by fresh cool rainwater and runoff, during ? of the year, it provides an oasis for freshwater creatures during the dry summer. These unassuming habitats are worthy of our attention, and care. Many are paved over without a second thought. Contaminants, such as pesticides, accumulate and wreck havoc in the salamander's world.
Drop by the tbg pond to see the Northwestern Salamanders hatch out of their jelly coats in early May... but watch out for that alligator!
Barb Beasley is a Tofino biologist and ecologists and is involved extensively in the preservation of amphibians.