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Oct 8, 2019 6:47 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

A Search In Montauk Turns Up The Elusive Blue-Spotted Salamander

South Fork Natural History Museum's annual salamander log rolling in Montauk. Andy Sabin holding a four-toed salamander. ELIZABETH VESPE
Oct 8, 2019 10:46 AM

A dozen salamander enthusiasts met at an overlook in Montauk on a brisk Saturday morning to flip over logs in search of the rare blue-spotted salamander.

"Salamander Commander” Andy Sabin, board president of the South Fork Natural History Museum, organizes two “salamander log rolling” hikes per year in Montauk — the only place on the East End where the purebred blue-spotted salamander can be found, he said.

Saturday's program gave participants an opportunity to get an up-close and personal look at blue-spotted salamanders and four-toed salamanders — the “elusive” amphibians of the South Fork, Mr. Sabin called them.

”These are the pure genetic strain because Montauk peninsula is an isolated habitat, so they don’t interbreed,” Frank Quevedo, executive director of SOFO, said, adding that Montauk boasts a unique habitat. Salamanders are found under the leaf litter and rotting logs on the forest floor.

The rare blue-spotted salamander has bluish-black skin, with unique blue and white flecks on its back, and bluish-white specks on the sides of its body and tail. The tail comprises 40 percent of its body; at most, the salamanders grow to about 5.5 inches.

The blue-spotted is one of several salamanders referred to as mole salamanders that can be found on the East End — aptly named mole salamanders because they spend most of their time underground.

The four-toed salamander is one of the lung-less salamanders, which breathe solely through their skin and the tissues in their mouth. The salamander has the amazing ability to detach its tail to escape when gripped by a predator.

“We’re going to look for the blue-spotted salamander. It’s in a pure form here. It's only found here in Montauk and Prince Edward Island," Mr. Sabin said before taking off on the hike. "They find blue-spotted other places, but not pure. Hopefully we’ll get to find one.”

“Do you know how to turn over a log?” Mr. Sabin asked Plum Nugent, a first-grader, who was ready to take notes with a red notebook in her backpack.

Plum's father, David Nugent, said they had become members of the museum a year ago.

"We love hiking, and going outside in nature," he said. "She was so excited about this," he said of his daughter. "She woke up, packed her bag, and got herself ready.”

“I found a four-toed,” Mr. Sabin said after about three minutes of hiking and flipping logs. The group rushed over to see.

“Look how little and cute it is,” Mr. Nugent said to Plum as he held the salamander up and she drew a picture.

Plum said she always brings a notebook on hikes and draws pictures of the things she finds.

“These guys are called four-toed salamanders because they have four toes on both of their feet. Most salamanders have five on their back feet," Mr. Sabin said.

Sara Bailey, SOFO's environmental educator, added that four-toed salamanders lay their eggs on the edge of the water and have an aquatic larval stage.

Salamanders are primarily nocturnal and come out at night to forage and eat insects such as tiny flies, worm and slugs. During the day, they can be found under wet logs. They often live in wet, cooler areas, Ms. Bailey said. Most salamanders burrow underground in the winter, she said, but the blue-spotted salamanders really go under and are known to stay under for a long period of time.

“They have that slimy skin to protect themselves,” Mr. Quevedo said as some of the participants reached into a white plastic bin and stroked a couple of the blue-spotted salamanders — which were later returned to the spots where they were found.

“They transfer oxygen through their skin. So, a lot of times when we're holding them, we try to hold them for a short period of time or add a little bit of water, because it makes it harder for them to breathe when they start to dry out,” Ms. Bailey said before placing one of the salamanders under a wet log and continuing the search for more.

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