Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Mole Salamander

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Collectively, salamanders of the family Ambystomatidae are referred to as mole salamanders, but it is Ambystoma talpoideum that is known commonly as the mole salamander.

Like the mole for which it is named, this salamander spends a great deal of its life underground. It might also be found wandering the forest floor on rainy nights, or under a log or among forest debris and leaf litter during the day. It is rarely seen outside the breeding season--December through February--and finding a specimen is often a matter of luck, unless one knows of a breeding site and keeps tabs on it throughout winter and spring.

Loose, moist soils are most suitable for burrowing and therefore the mole salamander is found primarily in wet bottomland and swamp habitats, flatwoods, and near floodplains and low-lying areas. Found throughout much of the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States, it is in its northernmost U.S. range at the southern tip of Illinois. Here, the mole salamander finds refuge in the bald cypress and tupelo swamplands and sloughs and ponds of the Cache, Mississippi, and Ohio River valleys. Much of the swamp habitat has been drained and fragmented, but the remaining fragments are protected in state conservation areas, nature preserves, and the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. While its range in Illinois is limited to Jackson, Union, Alexander, Johnson, Pope, and Massac counties, the mole salamander is quite commonly found there.

The mole salamander, like many other amphibians, needs water for breeding. Shallow, heavily vegetated and fish-free temporary ponds provide the most successful breeding environment. Breeding sites are sometimes shared with marbled, spotted, or tiger salamanders. Adults make their move, often during heavy autumn and winter rains, to breeding areas for courtship and egg laying. Male salamanders do not have breeding calls like frogs and toads, but they can be distinguished from females because they develop a swelling around the cloaca (the internal chamber at the base of the tail that receives the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts) during breeding. After fertilization occurs, the female attaches 200-400 small eggs, in jelly-covered clusters (containing up to 35 eggs each), to submerged twigs and leaves. Breeding is completed in just a few days.

During summer or autumn, eggs hatch into gilled larvae resembling small fish. Young larvae feed voraciously on small zooplankton; as the larvae mature they consume larger aquatic invertebrates. They will eventually complete metamorphosis and leave the water to mature on land, returning to ponds only to reproduce. Most individuals will return to the same pond in which they hatched. In certain populations of A. talpoideum the larvae mature sexually before metamorphosis, remain aquatic, and reproduce while retaining their larval characteristics. These individuals are called neotenic (from the term neoteny, meaning the attainment of sexual maturity by an organism still in its larval stage).

One of the smaller members of the Ambystomatidae family, a typical adult mole salamander is three to four inches long. The limbs and broad, bluntly rounded head seem disproportionately large. It has 4 toes on forelimbs, 5 toes on hind limbs, and 10 or 11 costal grooves (a vertical groove along the sides of the body between the front and back limbs).

A. talpoideum is the least distinctive looking salamander of the family. Its soft, moist, scaleless skin is fairly uniform in coloring, ranging from muted bluish gray to nearly black with white, gray, or silver flecking. Often it will have a white edge along the top of the tail. The belly is gray with light blotches. Overall, it resembles the smallmouth salamander.

Adult mole salamanders eat beetles, centipedes, slugs, worms, and other invertebrates, much like their mammalian namesake.

Michelle Garland, Center for Economic Entomology

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