Friday, 5 December 2014

Nature of Corsica 7: Corsican Fire Salamander
Widespread across Europe, North Africa and Parts of Turkey and the Middle East can be found a variety of species of large, warningly coloured salamanders. They vary from all-black in the Alpine Salamander S.atra to almost all-yellow in some forms of S.terrestris. In warmer climates they are mostly found at altitude, but in northern Europe they are found close to sea level. Their typical habitat is woodland, either deciduous or pine, but most forms require permanent or near-permanent water for their larvae, usually in the form of shallow streams.

There is a certain amount of variation between, and even within, the species, but they all give birth to live young. Mating takes place on land, with the female entering shallow water to release gilled larvae. The Alpine salamander takes this one stage further, with the female giving birth to one or two large, fully terrestrial young.

The nearest relative of the Alpine salamander is the Corsican salamander,, and it is fairly widespread in the island, especially in the central mountains. The snow-fed streams provide good habitat for the larvae, which are produced in the spring and feed on aquatic invertebrates. From what I saw, pollution is probably not a major threat, but more serious are introduced rainbow trout, which prey on the developing larvae. At lower elevations I expect agriculture, and tourism have had a negative impact.

The salamanders are mostly nocturnal, but can be found in daylight, especially after overnight rain, and we were fortunate enough to find one such crossing a path. They are slow-moving, deliberate animals, and as adults I doubt they have much in the way of natural enemies as they carry potent toxins in their skin and the large parotid glands at the side of the head. More of a threat is traffic – unfortunately one of the commonest ways to find one is squashed by vehicles on forest tracks, and that was in fact how we found the first specimen.

They feed on a variety of small invertebrates, but in captivity at least many seem to be especially fond of slugs and worms, which of course is what brings them out after rain. How long they can live I am not sure, but since once they metamorphose into the aposematic adults they must have few natural enemies I would not be surprised if they can live at least 20 years, perhaps even longer.

In European folklore the salamander was a beast that was immune to fire or even breathed it, and at first glance that is an on attribute for an amphibian. It probably started from wood-burning fires in central Europe – a hibernating salamander would be brought in with a bundle of fuel and be seen trying to escape across the earth floor of a medieval house from the open hearth.

(Photo of larva  and S.atra from Wikipedia, rest are mine)

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