Searching for Salamanders – April 2021

It’s a very special season in Rochester! With the first few warm, rainy nights of the year comes an assortment of amphibians! Last week, several groups from the department went out to the nearby Mendon Ponds Park in search for salamanders and other pond pals. We specifically looked for vernal pools, bodies of water that form in the early spring due to snowmelt and evaporate away as the year goes on. These temporary ponds are perfect nurseries for many organisms, including frogs and salamanders, because predatory fish cannot access them.

Heading out around 9-11PM, each of the groups found a wide range of species! Including …

Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer): These small frogs produce a lot of noise as their chorus of raspy chirps can be heard throughout the night.

Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota): A common frog in ponds, if you think you hear someone plucking a banjo, it might just be a green frog!

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus): These toads are big and will further deter predators by secreting a bufotoxin, a poisonous substance that makes the toad unpalatable.

Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens): These can be found in a juvenile stage called an eft (shown here). Due to their color during this stage, they are often called “red efts”.

Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum): A medium sized mole salamander, these animals spend most of their time in burrows. They emerge this time of year to feed on worms in the rain and reproduce.

Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus): These small salamanders have a color polymorphism: some have red stripe (“red-backed”) while others have grey backs (“lead-backed”). The red striped individuals are also less likely to run away from predators, possibly relying on camouflage or aposematic coloration.

Yellow-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum): The main goal of our trips, this large mole salamander is extremely hard to find outside of March-May. On only a few nights during this period, large masses of salamanders will move into vernal pools to breed all at once. Here’s hoping a later outing will catch this!

Fairy Shrimp (Eubranchipus vernalis): These are freshwater shrimp that only appear in vernal pools. They reproduce while the pool is full and their eggs remain dormant for the rest of the year until the pools form again in the spring.

Overall, these trips were a great way to familiarize ourselves with local wildlife and appreciate the biodiversity of vernal pools!

Mole Salamanders – Spring 2017

Finally found mole salamanders after a few years of searching– last Monday (April 3), at midnight, in the forest, in a rainstorm. This is Ambystoma maculatum, the Spotted Salamander. Spotted them in Mendon Ponds Park.

Mole salamanders live most of their lives underground in burrows and eat invertebrates. But once a year, in early spring, during rainstorms, late at night – they aggregate at small ponds to mate. There were also hundreds of Wood frogs and Spring peepers mating in the pool as well… very loud.

  • Vince Martinson
  • Ellen Martinson

Spotted salamanders mating in the pond.


Spotted salamander charging back to the pond.


Lots of Wood frogs mating in the pond… the ripples are all frogs.

Salamander egg mass.


Spotted salamander – this one was about 7 inches long.


Spotted salamander close-up.



Frogs and Salamanders at Mendon Ponds!

This spring the EEB department had lots of fun searching for frogs and salamanders at Mendon Ponds! Our fearless leader, Anthony, took us on multiple trips and we saw all sorts of creatures. Below are just two of the animals we saw on our trips. Seeing the salamander was particularly amazing because this species only come out once a year to mate in the ephemeral ponds, otherwise they live deep underground. We look forward to going out next year!

UR Department of Biology retreat

The Department of Biology retreat held this week at Long Acre Farm was a huge success! Thanks to all those involved in organizing the event. We kicked off the day by hearing excellent talks from our alumni guest speakers, Dr. Harmit Malik (Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center) and Dr. Yali Dou (University of Michigan).  After talks, we carved pumpkins, competed in games, tasted wines, had a great poster session and dinner. We closed the evening with a hilarious music video created by our 2nd year graduate students and prize announcements. photo

Congratulations to the winners:

Teaching award winners- Matthew Johnson and Jeffrey Vedanayagam

Poster award winners- Sophea Chhim and Aisha Siebert


Spring bloom in the desert

About this time of year in Rochester, we are still early in the spring. However, in the Sonoran Desert spring bloom is almost over. One of the last plant species to bloom in the spring is the saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea. Rob Laport and Bob Minckley were in Tucson and surrounding areas from 25 April to 7 May doing field work and giving presentations at a conference ( that meets every 8 years to discuss science and management issues of the Sky Island region (=northwestern Chihuahuan and northeastern Sonoran Deserts).

During the visit, we took this picture. Saguaros flowers produce tremendous amounts of pollen and nectar at night that attract bats. What is left over is cleaned up the following morning by bees and white-winged doves (Zenaida asiatica). The bees in the picture are honey bees (Apis mellifera).

The Rap Guide to Evolution

While in NYC last weekend, I caught a performance of Baba Brinkman’s “Rap Guide to Evolution.”  Brinkman, a Canadian MC who holds a Masters in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, became known through his work on “The Rap Canterbury Tales” and related projects.  His evolution show has received plenty of rave reviews, including three glowing commentaries in the NY Times alone ([1], [2], [3]).  Brinkman’s show started strong with a few raps covering basic principles of evolution, like the three requirements for natural selection and the fact that all humans are derived from African ancestors.  (I never thought I’d be doing a call and response of “I’m A African” by Dead Prez at the Soho Playhouse).  The show veered from mainstream evolutionary biology when Brinkman shifted to raps about evolutionary psychology, including one inspired by Daly and Wilson’s controversial book on the evolution of Homicide and another urging us to not sleep with mean people (so that natural selection eliminate them from future generations).  Count me among those who would have preferred more raps on the science of evolutionary biology rather than on speculation of how evolution might be applied to to human society.

One of the Downsides of Going Outside Biology

Over the past week, we introduced outgoing Glor Lab post-graduate researcher to anole research.  One of Shea’s main tasks was to record light readings from perches where lizards were observed along the Rio Bani.  These readings are necessary to determine if anoles with different dewlap colors and patterns tend to display in different light environments (a prerequisite for models of speciation involving sensory drive).  Shea performed this task fearlessly, as illustrated by the photographs above, in which Shea can be seen taking measurements just inches from active wasp nests (nests are in white circles).  Although Shea was often most directly in harms way, Anthony Geneva managed to exceed Shea’s sting total by wandering directly into a nest while searching for data loggers placed along a steep embankment.  In fact, Shea’s only string of the trip came as a result of running through Anthony’s wasp cloud in an effort to catch a giant anole that Anthony disturbed from its perch during his panicked retreat.

Going Outside Biology

Anthony Geneva gathers data for his thesis on speciation in anoles along the Rio Bani in the Dominican Republic.  These photos were taken yesterday as Anthony (with assistance from Shea Lambert in the left photo) was gathering ecological data from a complex of three sympatric trunk anoles.

Announcing the Rediscovery of the Grenada Bank Blind Snake

Typhlops tasymicrus was previously known from two specimens collected on Grenada during 1968. Photo courtesy Mel José Rivera Rodríguez.

During June 2010 I found myself exploring the southern Caribbean (Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, and the Grenadines) along with renowned West Indian herpetologists Robert Powell and Robert Henderson and a host of undergraduates working on a REU based on Union Island.  My goal was to collect ecological data on Gonatodes daudini and Sphaerodactylus kirbyi, two sphaerodactylid geckos known only from the Grenadines (the strip of tiny islands between Grenada in the south and St. Vincent in the north).

A few hours after drinking “under the counters” (a high octane mix of over-proof rum and forest herbs/spices) on Grenada, we found ourselves on the steep slopes of Union Island, flipping surface cover at the only known locality for G. daudini in hopes of finding a sympatric population of S. kirbyi.  After several minutes of meticulously picking through leaf litter and turning over downed trees and rocks, I flipped a large, flat rock to uncover a thick-bodied blind snake in the genus Typhlops. I showed the snake to Henderson and Powell.  The excitement was palpable – if it wasn’t a new species, it was a snake that hadn’t been seen alive in over 40 years and is known from two specimens collected on Grenada.

It turns out the snake’s identity is Typhlops tasymicrus, which is the species known only from two specimens collected on Grenada during 1968.  Some of the REU students went on to find additional specimens of this species in the same forested area, and our paper announcing the rediscovery of this species was published in the June 2011 edition of the Journal of Herpetology.  Photos of other species found during the expedition follow below.

West Indian islands surveyed during the trip.

Gonatodes daudini remains known only from a small patch of forest on Union Island.

Sphaerodactylus kirbyi from Union Island. This species was formely known only from the island of Bequia.

The Grenadine tree boa, Corallus grenadensis, is commonly encountered at night while they cruise through the trees in search of sleeping prey.