Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team

Featured Creature

This is a Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team series of informational tidbits and photos about animals that are found in and around the vernal pool habitat. Every now and then we spotlight one of these neat creatures. See if you can recognize any from your woodland wanderings....

Marbled Salamander

image of a marbled salamander

Marbled salamander

Common Name: Marbled salamander
Scientific Name: Ambystoma opacum
Size: Adults 11 cm (4 in)
Lifespan: 8-10+ years
Range: Eastern United States to Southern New England to Florida, and as far west as Illinois and Texas.
Diet: Salamander larvae eat small aquatic animals (zooplankton), adult salamanders eat terrestrial invertebrates, such as worms, insects, centipedes and mollusks (snails, slugs), larger salamanders will eat eggs and larvae of other amphibians.

  • Habitat - Damp woodlands, forests, and places with soft wet soil. They are secretive, spending most of their life under logs or in burrows.
  • Abundance - Uncommon, not found on Cape Ann. A threatened species in Massachusetts.
  • Breeding - During the fall the adults migrate to dry vernal ponds. Eggs are laid singly in shallow depressions beneath surface materials. Females may brood eggs which usually hatch in fall or early winter when submerged.
  • Similar Species - Other mole salamanders including spotted and blue spotted.
  • Comments - Has a stocky build, boldly banded. Female’s bands tend to be grey while those of the male’s are mostly white. Nocturnal, not poisonous like other salamanders.

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Eastern Ribbon Snake

eastern ribbon snake

The charming and vivacious ribbon snake

Common Name: 
Eastern ribbon snake
Scientific Name: Thamnophis sauritus sauritus
Size: Adults 2' or more
Lifespan: Unknown
Range: Most of the Eastern United States
Record: 38"
Diet: 90% frogs, toads, and salamanders. Usually small or metamorphosing individuals.


  • Habitat - Semi-aquatic, prefers areas with brushy vegetation at the edge of fresh water wetlands for concealment. One of the more common snakes found in and around our local vernal pools (all snakes can swim).
  • Abundance - Generally common. Hibernate underground from October to March.
  • Breeding - After emergence from hibernation. Young are born live from July to September.
  • Similar Species - Garter snake (also genus Thamnophis). Ribbons are more slender, have a bolder pattern, longer tails, and the lips are unpatterned.
  • Comments - An agile, nervous snake, seldom wanders more than a few hundred feet from water. Fleeing ribbon snakes skirt shorelines, threading their way through vegetation, disappearing from sight with amazing speed.

References: Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians-Eastern/Central North America, Roger Conant. Audubon Field Guide to New England, Peter Alden & Brian Cassie. Amphibians and Reptiles of New England, Habitats, and Natural History, DeGraaf and Rudis.

Photograph by Colleen Anderson
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    Spotted Salamander

    spotted salamander larvae

    Aquatic Spotted salamander larva (right). Those feathery-looking things growing out of its neck are gills. 

    spotted salamander

    A newly metamorphosed Spotted salamander (left) is 2.5” long. Now a land animal, the gills are gone and the lungs are fully functional.

    Common Name: Spotted salamander
    Scientific Name: Ambystoma maculatum
    Size: Adults 6 - 7.75” Record 9.75”
    Lifespan: 20 years
    Range: All of New England and most of the Eastern United States
    Diet: Earthworms, snails, slugs, insects, spiders, larval and adult beetles


    • Habitat - Moist woods, beneath stones and logs. Prefers deciduous or mixed woods and shallow woodland ponds. Terrestrial hibernator. Usually breeds in vernal ponds.
    • Relative Abundance - Common- though secretive. Populations declining due to habitat destruction and over-collecting.
    • Breeding - Mass breeding migrations to pools occur from March to early April throughout New England. Eggs are laid in large masses of jelly, sometimes milky, sometimes clear, attached to underwater stems. Each female lays one to ten masses. About 100 eggs per mass.
    • Eggs Hatch - 31-54 days depending on water temperature.
    • Larval Period - 61-110 days. Usually metamorphose into adults from July to September. They are known to overwinter as larvae.
    • Comments - Nocturnal, usually found above ground only during migrations to and from breeding pools. Individuals have been found up to 1/4 mile from the nearest breeding pool.
    • Obligate Species - Spotted salamanders are considered, for the purpose of certification, an obligate vernal pond species. Their egg masses are proof of the existence of a vernal pond, as long as the pond meets physical requirements, such as a confined basin depression with no permanent inlet or outlet.

    Reference: Amphibians and Reptiles of New England, Habitats and Natural History. DeGraaf and Rudis

    Photographs by Colleen Anderson

    Blue-Spotted Salamander

    blue-spotted salamanderRaise your hand if you’re a Blue-spotted salamander.
    Or alternate caption: Hey! We’re the Featured Creature. Gimme a high four!

    Common Name: Blue-spotted salamander
    Scientific Name: Ambystoma laterale
    Size: Adults average 2” from snout to vent (4-5” tip to tip) 
    Lifespan: Unknown
    Range: Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada, more or less
    Diet: Earthworms, sowbugs, and centipedes


    • Habitat - Wooded, swampy or moist areas. Ponds or semi-permanent water, including vernal ponds, for breeding.
    • Breeding - During early spring rains when the temperatures are above freezing.
    • Reproduction - Eggs laid in March and early April. Hatch in about one month.
    • Larval Period - Extends from late June to mid-August.
    • Comments - Acid precipitation and habitat loss are major threats to this species. Masschusetts vernal pond obligate species. State-listed as a species of concern.

    Reference: Amphibians and Reptiles of New England, Habitats and Natural History. DeGraaf and Rudis

    Photograph by Sharron Cohen

    Spotted Turtle

    spotted turtleWe found this Spotted turtle in a vernal pond in West Gloucester
    while working on CAVPT surveys with Dan Wells of Hyla Ecological Services.
    She was at the bottom of the pool under 18” of water.
    The growth rings on her shell indicate she is 18 years old.

    Common Name: Spotted turtle
    Scientific Name: Clemmys guttata
    Size: Adults average about 3 1/2” to 5 1/2” long
    Lifespan: It can take 7 to 10 years for a spotted turtle to reach sexual maturity. They are not particularly long-lived for a turtle, maybe 25 years. Their populations are not likely to bounce back unless measures are taken to protect the turtles and the habitat.
    Range: Eastern United States (more or less)
    Diet: Crustaceans, mollusks, spiders, earthworms, aquatic insects, occasionally frogs, tadpoles, small fish, carrion and vegetation.


    • Habitat - Unpolluted small shallow bodies of water such as woodland streams, wet meadows, bog holes, vernal ponds, marshes, and swamps.
    • Abundance - Populations are declining due to habitat destruction (development, and draining and filling of wetlands), over collecting, and roadkill.
    • Breeding - March to May
    • Reproduction - Deposits eggs on land in June or July. Average clutch size is 2 to 5 eggs. Incubation period of 70-83 days - hatching in late August. Overwintering in the nest may occur.
    • Comments - Wanders over land to different wetlands. May breed in one wetland, feed in one or more wetlands, and overwinter in yet another. Hibernates in muddy wetland bottoms under the ice. May aestivate during the hottest months of summer.

    Reference: Amphibians and Reptiles of New England, Habitats and Natural History. DeGraaf and Rudis

    Photograph by Ron Camille

    Gray Treefrog

    gray tree frogLovely little frog

    Common Name: Gray treefrog
    Scientific Name: Hyla versicolor 
    Size: Adults average about 1 3⁄4” long
    Lifespan: Typical 7 - 9 years
    Range: Eastern United States and Canada, more or less. Locally common throughout the range, but hard to find in some places (like Cape Ann).
    Diet: Eats mostly small insects and spiders


    • Habitat - Various kinds of wooded and forested areas. Hides in tree holes, under bark and in rotten logs when inactive. Sticky feet, often found clinging to moss, lichen, bark, or manmade structures such as the side of a house, a door, or a wooden fence.
    • Features - Able to change color from gray to green to match its background, making them almost impossible to spot unless they move or make a noise. Inside of legs is bright orange, visible when they jump or climb. Newly metamorphosed juveniles are emerald green.
    • Breeding - They breed in freshwater wetlands, often vernal ponds. The breeding call of the male is a short percussive trill that lasts just a few seconds, as opposed to a toad’s trill, which can last 30 to 60 seconds.
    • Similar Species - Cope's gray treefrog looks identical but you can tell them apart by their calls - the Gray treefrog's call has a slower trill that is more musical than Cope's. The Gray treefrog is also a little larger, has bumpier skin, and scientists note it has twice as many chromosones as Cope's.
    • Comments - Can change its color in seconds and tends to become darker when it is cold and dark.

    Photograph by Nicci Cataldo

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