A spotted salamander, deceased, by the driveway in Troy. Photo courtesy of Dana Wilde

Earlier this summer there was a dead dinosaur in the driveway.

Anyway, that’s what it looked like. It was actually a spotted salamander, about 7 inches long from tail tip to snout, lying alongside the gravel track. Presumably one of us had hit it accidentally with a car.

An unusual sight, because salamanders are seen out of their natural habitat only rarely, and then mostly during mating season, around April. They hibernate in ground burrows, inside stumps or under leaf litter, and then when it’s warming up, migrate to vernal pools or slow streams in the woods to mate. They hunt food such as worms, spiders and bugs at night, and stay out of sight during the day under stones or in pre-made burrows and other earth crevices.

In Maine we have nine species of salamanders, according to “Maine Amphibians and Reptiles,” including mudpuppies, a completely aquatic species that was accidentally introduced into Great Pond in Belgrade around 1940. I’ve seen what I think were Northern red-backed salamanders in the garden, and they, and especially the larger spotted salamander in the driveway, seem to me like small versions of ancient monsters. It turns out they’re even older than dinosaurs.

Salamanders, like frogs and toads, are amphibians, not reptiles such as snakes and turtles. Reptiles can live dry, and generally bury their eggs in soil. Amphibians live around water so they can keep their skin moist, and they generally lay their eggs in water. The six-spotted salamander who didn’t make it across the driveway may have been on the way to the brook down in the woods for breeding, though the body was found in June, which is a little late for breeding activities hereabouts.

Amphibians predate reptiles and hence dinosaurs by millions of years, and our salamanders are thought to fairly closely resemble their ancient ancestors. The first salamanderlike creature in the fossil record lived about 370 million years ago, and one of its descendants, Eryops, lived 120 million or so years later. Eryops was up to 8 feet long with a 2-foot-wide skull. Around 230 million years ago, some millions of years after Eryops, the first dinosaurs appeared, having evolved from reptiles. Alligators and crocodiles, which are reptiles, get bigger than Eryops. But still.

About 200 million years ago a mass extinction wiped out about 80 percent of everybody. Some animals made it through and new animals evolved. Then about 66 million years ago an asteroid slammed into the Earth and wiped out about 76 percent of everybody who had survived before, including all the dinosaurs. Now, in the 2000s, we are experiencing, mostly invisibly to us here in our central-heating houses and rumbling vehicles, another mass extinction of life on Earth. The sixth in about 3 billion years of living beings.

Amphibians survived the first five extinctions, including the ancestors of this spotted salamander who died in our driveway. Probably we hit it with one of our cars, which is a common fate for salamanders in the breeding season when they cross roads to get to the vernal pools.

Quite a number of studies show that salamanders, along with most amphibians, are suffering severely from habitat loss and fragmentation. Meaning that as humans tear up woods to build houses, malls and roads; log; etc., we destroy the salamanders’ living spaces or cut them off from their breeding grounds. So they have to cross roads every spring and end up getting killed in large numbers.

No salamanders that live in Maine are on endangered or threatened species lists. On the other hand, it’s believed that worldwide, amphibians have the highest proportion of species threatened with extinction. The world’s vertebrate populations have declined by 60 percent since the 1970s, mostly because of habitat loss and degradation caused by humans.

A recent study estimated that 96 percent of all the mammals now living on Earth are humans and our livestock; the rest, about 4 percent of all mammals, are wild animals. And those are the warm fuzzy ones we find affinities with. The salamanders, frogs and toads lurking ickily in the woods seem worlds away. Though they’re dying right there by the driveway too. As if an asteroid hit.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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