On warm, wet spring nights, a seldom-seen amphibian that makes its home in Laramie goes on the move.
The Western tiger salamander is Wyoming’s only salamander species, and they live in high-elevation areas across the western United States.
In Laramie, tiger salamanders live in and around the lake at LaBonte Park. During the spring, they emerge from their homes in surrounding residential yards to migrate to the pond to breed.
Mel Torres, a Ph.D. student studying amphibians at the University of Wyoming, said tiger salamanders that have metamorphosed into their adult terrestrial form leave the pond and dig under the ground, sometimes using gopher holes to travel.
“They can be found in people’s yards sometimes because they dig underground, and they’ll just hang there,” she said.
From mid-March to mid-May, they wait for rainy nights when the temperature is above 35 degrees F to make a move back to the water.
“They dig themselves up from the ground, cross Ninth Street, cross other streets, and jump into the water and breed,” Torres said.
Salamanders wait for rainy nights to come up from underground because they need to stay moist.
“Amphibians dry very easily,” Torres said. “They have very sensitive skin.”
On one recent night, Torres and other students, staff and faculty affiliated with the UW Biodiversity Institute counted several dozen salamanders and helped them across Ninth Street by transporting them in buckets.
“Traffic does not stop for salamanders,” she said.
Once at the lake, males do an aquatic dance to entice females. If she’s receptive, he drops a sperm packet that she takes with her as she lays eggs. Eggs hatch into aquatic larva, which morph into terrestrial versions, complete with lungs, in about a year if conditions are right. Some individuals can gain reproductive ability without undergoing metamorphosis and stay in the water their entire lives.
Tiger salamanders are opportunistic feeders, limited in what they eat only by their ability to swallow it.
“They can even be cannibalistic,” Torres said.
Torres said anyone who encounters a tiger salamander should wear latex gloves or wash their hands before picking one up, to protect the salamander from oils and chemicals on human skin. Hold the salamander low to the ground in case it’s dropped.
“They’re easy to handle, and they’re not poisonous,” she said.
To help a salamander across a street to the lake, bring a clean bucket with water in the bottom and release them carefully at the edge of the water.
Tiger salamanders are one of 11 amphibian species native to Wyoming, in addition to the invasive bullfrog. They are quite hardy and don’t need pristine waters to make a home.
“They definitely have a broad range when it comes to habitat,” Torres said.