Searching for Indiana’s Salamanders

Winter Herping

At the Global Center for Species Survival, we spend a lot of time at our desks working with conservationists from around the world. But in our free time, we often enjoy exploring local biodiversity hotspots, and Indiana streams and ponds are brimming with life. Most people assume spring is the best time to find amphibians, but in Indiana, January and February offer prime breeding conditions for certain species of frogs and salamanders. 

Recently, our Zoo crew threw on a few extra layers and waterproof boots to explore southern Indiana and celebrate the state’s freshwater spaces and species. Below is a list of what we found, and it includes thoughts from one of our interns, Ella Sarles. This was Ella’s first time “herping” – which is a term used to describe the process of looking for reptile and amphibian species.  

Jefferson Salamanders

We found two Jefferson salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianumand a cluster of their eggs in a vernal pool in the Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County. Vernal pools are temporary ponds, which make them ideal breeding sites due to the absence of predators like fish. Jefferson salamanders are a type of mole salamander, meaning that they spend most of their time underground and only come out to breed and deposit their eggs in vernal pools in late winter and early spring. The average lifespan of a Jefferson salamander is six years. They are not very active and may travel less than a mile in their entire lifetime. They mostly eat insects and other invertebrate species. Fortunately, Jefferson salamanders are categorized as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as it is more widely distributed across the Eastern U.S., with good population sizes, but related species that utilize the same spaces are threatened with extinction. That’s why it’s critical we protect the woodland habitats and freshwater sites these amphibians need to thrive. 

Ella’s Thoughts: I have lived in Indiana my entire life and before this trip, I had only ever seen one salamander in the wild, so this was an incredible experience. Now I know where to look, how to look, and when to look to find these adorable creatures, and I can’t wait to go with my friends and family.  

Finding the Jefferson salamanders and a cluster of their eggs was fascinating. I could have stayed there taking pictures and observing the salamanders for hours. The vernal pool seemed small, quiet, and empty at first glance, but aside from the two salamanders and their eggs, we also found two large tadpoles and a pair of snapping turtles hiding under the ice. This trip was a refreshing reminder of the beauty of biodiversity. Being a college student, I often get swept into auto-pilot mode, which can be draining and lonely. But quality time spent outside in the natural areas near me helps me feel grounded and reminds me that none of us are ever truly alone when we share our planet with so many other wonderful species.  

Streamside Salamanders

We found one streamside salamander (Ambystoma barbouri) by checking under large rocks in a stream near Madison, Jefferson County, Indiana. These slightly chunkier salamanders can be found in streams with limestone bottoms, usually in hilly, wooded uplands. Their geographic range is southwestern Ohio, southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky, plus some isolated populations have been found in Tennessee. They prefer shallow streams where there are few fish – which could be predators. Like Jefferson salamanders, streamside salamanders are rarely found outside of their breeding season in the winter because they are fossorial – meaning they are adapted for digging and primarily live underground. They are categorized as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List (and a species of Special Concern with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources). Major threats include habitat loss and degradation as well as droughts drying up the streams they live in.  

Ella’s Thoughts: The streamside salamander took a bit more patience to find, but it was worth it. Each of us eagerly checked under each rock, hoping we would be the one to find the first salamander. Once we finally found one – a streamside salamander – we were ecstatic. It felt even more meaningful after learning that their population is declining. It can be tempting to not care about one kind of salamander – after all, there are plenty of other salamanders that are doing fine. But once you see one in person, it can change your perspective. You realize that they are all unique in their own special way, and they are all indeed worth protecting.  

Southern Two-Lined Salamander

Further up that same stream, we found one southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera). These salamanders need rocky streams that hold water throughout the entire year. They are found throughout most of the eastern United States east of the Mississippi River, from the south of Michigan to the north of peninsular Florida. Adults usually hang out under rocks and debris in and around these streams, but occasionally wander into the surrounding forest. They feed mostly on aquatic invertebrates and terrestrial invertebrates when they are foraging around their streams. They are also listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List because of their relatively wide distribution and presumably good population numbers.  

Ella’s Thoughts: The southern two-lined salamander was the absolute cutest. It was much tinier than the others and its body was a beautiful shade of yellow. I wasn’t expecting us to find two different kinds of salamanders in the same stream, especially in the winter. This gave me a much deeper appreciation for Indiana’s streams, which have a reputation for being some of the most polluted in the country, and the importance of maintaining their water quality. I think a lot of people underestimate the extent of Indiana’s biodiversity, claiming that it’s a “boring” state. Having this outlook and valuing certain regions over others can be harmful to native species and lead to even more habitat destruction. Everywhere is abundant with life and beauty if you just take the time to look.  

Pay attention to our social media accounts in the coming months as Ella provides more thoughts on her experiences as a Global Center intern. She will provide followers with a fresh perspective as she learns about new species and conservation issues. We’re on TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Note: Salamander selfies are great so long as you are respectful and safe in your handling of the animals. First, make sure your hands are free of skincare products that might irritate salamander skin. Second, wet your hands thoroughly in the stream or pond water before picking up the salamander. Third, don’t keep the salamander out of the water for very long and return it where you found it.

This blog was a collaboration between experts at the Global Center for Species Survival and Global Center intern Ella Sarles. We’d also like to thank two of our colleagues in the Indianapolis Zoo’s Education department, Nadia Lovko and Jamie Jackson, and our other Global Center intern, Katarina Glueck, for joining us on this herping adventure.  

Published February 8, 2023 


Andrea Echeverry-Alcendra is the Reptile & Amphibian Conservation Coordinator for the Global Center for Species Survival.

Learn more about reptile conservation and Andrea.