The ringed salamander is a slender and elongated salamander, usually with 15 riblike grooves on the sides. The head and neck are small and somewhat elongated compared to other salamanders in its genus. Above, the ground color ranges from grayish black to black. The belly is normally slate gray to buff yellow. A series of bold, narrow white or yellow rings usually extends over the back but may be broken at the midline. The rings never completely encircle the body.
This is one of six Missouri species of mole salamanders (family Ambystomatidae); all six are in genus Ambystoma. Mole salamanders spend most of their time underground. Outside of breeding season, adults spend most of their time in the soil (often in burrows made by small mammals) or under logs and rocks. Salamanders in this family are often active at night, especially after a heavy rain.
Length: 5½–7 inches; occasionally to 9½ inches.
Occurs in the southwestern and central Missouri Ozarks, and in the river hills of the Missouri River in the eastern section of the state.
Habitat and Conservation
Because of the secretive nature of this salamander, little is known about its habits. Its populations are highest and healthiest in large, intact forest with numerous fishless ponds.
Ringed salamanders generally live under the soil surface, usually staying under logs and rocks or in burrows made by small mammals, seldom venturing into the open and preferring heavily forested areas. In autumn, stimulated by heavy rains and cool temperatures, they migrate by night to fishless woodland ponds, where they may congregate by the hundreds for breeding; such populations have been known to range from 319 to 1,971.
Ringed salamanders, especially juveniles, have occasionally been observed climbing small saplings, grass clumps, stumps, and tree trunks to a maximum height of about 60 inches.
There is little information available on the diet of juvenile and adult ringed salamanders, with only earthworms being documented. They probably also eat insects and land snails. In captivity, they have been known to eat earthworms and small crickets.
The larvae feed on a variety of aquatic organisms such as water fleas, mosquito larvae, snails, earthworms, frog eggs, and so on.
Locally common. A species of conservation concern in Missouri. Its range is restricted to highland forests in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas; it also has a patchy distribution, and there is limited information about its basic biology.
The ringed salamander breeds in autumn, primarily in September and October. Winter breeding has been observed on occasion. Heavy rains and cooler temperatures stimulate them to migrate, by night, to fishless woodland ponds, where hundreds may gather. Males arrive at the ponds before the females. From 2 or 3 to 25 males typically court each gravid female. Egg-laying is completed within a couple of days. Each female lays a number of eggs either singly, in small strings, or in loose masses, with each clump containing generally 4–31 eggs. The eggs are laid on submerged branches, on aquatic plant stems, or on the bottom of shallow ponds. The eggs begin hatching in 9–16 days, depending on water temperature. The larval period may last from 6 to over 8 months; transformation to juveniles occurs mainly in May or early June.
Over 99 percent of embryos and larvae die prior to hatching or during transformation. Most juveniles become reproductively mature within 2 to 3 years of age. Most of the adult population likely lives less than 10 years, but some individuals apparently may live up to 18 years.
Humans can play a role in protecting this fascinating animal. For ringed salamanders to continue as part of Missouri's (and our nation's) fauna, management should focus on:
- creating and maintaining fishless, semipermanent ponds, which ringed salamanders need for breeding and larval growth, and
- large areas of intact forests; fragmentation of forests by conversion into open lands and roads can disrupt migration patterns to and from breeding ponds.
As forest is removed and fragmented, and road traffic increases, local populations will decline or disappear across the landscape. A 2004 study showed over 1,000 ringed salamanders attempting to cross a single, approximately quarter-mile section of paved county road to reach a small breeding pond. Automobile traffic destroyed many of these inconspicuous salamanders, especially on wet roads at night, and especially on weekends when vehicle traffic was heavy.
Conservation measures that help this species by protecting and improving habitat undoubtedly will help many other species, as well.
This attractive salamander is secretive and seldom witnessed, making each discovery of one a happy occurrence.
Like other salamanders, this species is a predator to many small invertebrates, but it is itself a target for larger predators, including snakes, hawks, raccoons, and other animals. Some animals may depend a great deal upon the seasonal abundance of salamander eggs.
This species' need for fishless ponds is highlighted by data that show that the presence of fish greatly affects breeding and larval survivorship. Even small mosquitofish and fathead minnows prey on early stages of ringed salamanders.