The mole salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) is not a glamorous-looking creature. It’s small, unassuming, and slippery. It lives in burrows and in small isolated ponds in the woods. It’s mostly dark brown or black, often mottled with a gray or blue lichen-like pattern. It has a broad, flattened head. It looks a little like some artists’ reconstructions of Tiktaalik, and it’s easy to picture it living back when animals were first starting to crawl onto land.
Since it’s an amphibian, it does live in water and on land. The eggs are laid in water in late fall or winter, and the larvae hatch and mature through winter and early spring. This is what young mole salamanders look like: striped yellow or tan and brown, with big feathery gills.
And here’s the awesome thing about these little guys: when they grow up, they can keep their gills and stay in their nice familiar pond as adults. Or they can lose them and venture out onto land to become air-breathing terrestrial adults. I’ve only found the gilled adults in deeper ponds, but that may be because those ponds are the only ones that have enough water year-round for them to survive. This tendency to keep juvenile features into adulthood is called neoteny, and it is fairly common in salamanders.
These nearly-adult salamanders from a deep pond seem quite happy to keep their gills. Though less happy about being trapped in a jar and photographed.
The mole salamander has a more famous relative you might have heard of: the axolotl, a large salamander native to Mexico City. The axolotl is even more neotenous. It almost always keeps its gills as an adult. Axolotls can metamorphose, if they get enough iodine, but they usually don’t. Unfortunately, they are nearly extinct in the wild because the lakes they inhabited are almost gone. But they are commonly bred in captivity and kept as pets.
Mole salamanders, at least, seem to be abundant in the areas where they still live. I wasn’t even looking for them (I was looking for another member of the Ambystoma genus, the flatwoods salamander.) but I still managed to find literally hundreds of mole salamanders. (And not one flatwoods salamander, but that’ll be another post.)
Even if I wasn’t looking for them, it was nice to find them. And look how cooperative they are for the camera!