The Snow Trekker – Jefferson Salamander

Sometimes the rites of spring begin surprisingly early, when snow still blankets the frozen ground and ice still covers the ponds and pools. In hardwood forests from Kentucky to Vermont, there is an endearing “tailed” amphibian that emerges from his subterranean home during rainy nights when winter still grips the landscape, and willingly traverses snow patches on his way to vernal pools to breed!

I have christened this hardy soul the “Snow Trekker” … certainly a much more dignified and deserving designation than his “accepted” common name: Jefferson Salamander (also called “Jefferson’s Salamander”). Biologists have long known that this species typically begins migrating before its more well-known relative the Spotted Salamander. In fact, when conditions are perfect for “spotties” to migrate, “jeffies” may actually be found moving in the opposite direction, out of the pools, their breeding having already taken place!

How did Jefferson Salamander get his name? Well, it’s not because of some direct connection to Thomas Jefferson himself, but rather the salamander is named after a college in southwest Pennsylvania near where the salamander was first found: Jefferson College (now called Washington and Jefferson College).

Give me a break! Our native creatures should be given names based on their ways of being, not some human institution. But there is hope! Since “Jefferson Salamander” is a “common” name, we, the commoners, actually have the power to change it. If enough of us start calling him the “Snow Trekker,” the powers that be will have no choice but to accept the name the “we the people” have decided is appropriate.

Arriving at breeding ponds and pools, males and females often gather in groups of three or four (they never form big masses as do Spotted Salamanders). An excited male approaches a receptive female and climbs on top, grasping her tightly with his forelegs placed just behind her forelegs. He begins rubbing her snout and also undulates his tail, presumably to waft water-borne pheromones toward her nostrils. He may even thrash about violently, presumably to excite the female.

When the courtship reaches its peak, the male crawls forward to dismount the female and then deposits a sperm packet (spermatophore) on leaves or other submerged objects. The female follows along, nudging his cloaca with her nose, and then finally pulling sperm into her cloaca as she passes over the spermatophore (she actually “snips” off the sperm mass with her cloacal “lips” … isn’t that way-cool?).

Within a day or two, females lay up to twenty eggs masses containing around fifteen eggs each. The eggs hatch in about 30-40 days and the larvae transform into terrestrial juvenile adults a few months later. Outside the breeding season, adults burrow underground (as do most all members of the “mole salamander” group) and are rarely seen, although occasionally one may be found under a log or stone.

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Photos (click to enlarge):

Jefferson Salamander - dark brown individual - © Todd Pierson

dark brown individual

Jefferson Salamander – Salamander – black individual with large bluish flecks - © Todd Pierson

blackish individual with large bluish flecks

Jefferson Salamander - portrait (© Lang Elliott)

light gray individual

Jefferson Salamander - range map

range map

Online References & Books:

Salamanders of the United States and Canada – an excellent new scientific reference book by James W. Petranka, covering all North American species

Animal Diversity Website – Jefferson Salamander species account (a very nice life history and conservation summary!)

Wikipedia – Jefferson Salamander species account

AmphibiaWeb – Jefferson Salamander species account (technical, but useful)

What You Can Do:

If you’re living within the range of the Jefferson Salamander, you “might” be able to find one by looking under logs or large stones in deciduous forest habitats during the warmer months. However, by far the best way to observe them is to home-in on their breeding migrations. Jefferson Salamanders typically breed in the same pools where Spotted Salamanders breed. So if you know where to find spotties migrating, then your halfway to success!

The challenge is to know exactly when the jeffies are moving. While Spotted Salamanders generally require moist nights in the mid-40s (or higher), Jeffersons can be on the move when temperatures are in the mid to high 30s, usually during rainy or misty nights following a warmish day where the temperature reached the high 40s.

This is tricky business. The Jefferson migration is quite easy to miss! You may have to check out an area a number of times, even when you think the conditions are marginal. More likely, you’ll wait until a warmish night when the spotties are moving in mass (much easier to predict!), and then you’ll observe some jeffies moving with them, or else moving in the opposite direction, out of the pools, having already bred.

I have been tuning-in to the migration of the spotties in upstate New York for nearly thirty years. In all that time, the jeffies I observed were either moving with the spotties, or else leaving the ponds as the spotties were moving in. It wasn’t until this year (2014) that I FINALLY went out on a night when only the Jefferson Salamanders were moving, and it was my good fortune that they were migrating over the snow! I imagine that some years the jeffies might actually move a few weeks prior to the spotties, on nights when you’re cozily asleep in a warm bed, the Snow Trekkers dancing only in your dreams.


Notes from the Author (Lang Elliott):

portrait of Lang Elliott among maple leavesI gathered the footage for my “Snow Trekker” video portrait in mid-March, here in upstate New York. Although it was the right time of year for mole salamanders to begin their breeding migrations, unusually cold weather, solidly frozen ground, and abundant snow cover had prevented any activity.

One night I went to a movie with friends. Coming out of the theatre, I felt misty rain on my skin. The temperature had risen to the mid forties during the day, but after dark it had dropped rapidly into the thirties. I was aware that Jefferson Salamanders are known to migrate over the snow, but I’d never observed the event myself. “Maybe tonight,” I thought, with little faith that they would actually be moving.

After saying my goodnights, I grabbed my video camera and drove to a nearby spot on a golf course, where, in previous years, I’ve seen both Spotted and Jefferson migrating. By the time I arrived, the rain was turning to snow, though the temperature held steady in the mid-thirties.

I trudged through wet snow to a fairway that the salamanders must cross in order to home-in on a swampy lowland. I walked up and down the fairway, which was still half-covered with snow. No salamanders anywhere to be seen! So I turned and walked back down the fairway, headed for my car. And that’s when I came across a male Jefferson, walking smoothly across a snowy patch … what a complete and absolute surprise this was!

They really DO migrate over the snow!

With great excitement, I set about documenting the event with my video camera. All in all, I videotaped two different individuals slowly making their way across the snow. Soaking wet and tired from kneeling down in the snow, I finally called it quits and headed back to my car. On the way, I slipped and fell down a hill, destroying one of my two video lights.

“Oh well,” I thought … “I have great footage to make up for the accident.” But when I got to my car and checked my video camera, I realized that in all my excitement, I had forgotten to hit the “Record” button. Not just once, but at least three times! So I didn’t have any fantastic footage, none at all!

After of few minutes of gathering my strength and warming-up in the car, I trudged back out to the fairway and searched for nearly an hour before I found another jeffy on the snow. This time I was more careful, and I managed to hit “Record” with greater regularity (yes, I forgot once or twice, but most of the time I got it right). When I finished up well after midnight, I had documented the movements of two individuals, and on my way out I came across yet another, even though the temperature had fallen into the low thirties.

How on earth is this possible? These guys are cold-blooded; I’d think they would just gradually slow down and finally come to a stop. Yet the last individual was moving right along, apparently unaffected by the cold. What’s their secret? Lithium ion batteries?

The really strange thing about this event was that the wooded swamp they were headed for was entirely frozen over. So where are these guys going to end up? I found only one place where there was a little open water along the edge of a pool … chances are the salamanders would not be able to find it. So will they perish? I have read that dead ones have been found along the frozen edges of ponds. More likely, they will end up finding openings and crawling under the snow or ice sheet, where they will rest protected until the weather improves.

What a stroke of luck … to witness and document this glorious, lyrical migration over the snow. Henceforth, I shall refer to this species as the “Snow Trekker,” the salamander that braves both cold and snow in its zeal to get to vernal breeding pools at the earliest possible date.

On Making the Video Vignette: When I gathered the footage, I was cold, wet, and tired. My video camera’s viewfinder was small and I couldn’t clearly see what I was getting. I hoped and prayed that my camcorder’s autofocus was working properly and that my time spent crouched down in the wet snow was not in vain.

While my experience of “being there” was poignant and satisfying in its own right, I didn’t fully appreciate the magical beauty of the salamander’s snow trekking until I watched my video footage back in my studio. “OMG!”, I remember exclaiming … “this footage is truly extraordinary.” An that’s when I got excited about piecing together a powerful video vignette.

But what about background sounds? There were no frogs calling … just a light wind blowing and the occasional sounds of things falling from trees. That wouldn’t do the trick. “What it needs is inspirational music of some sort,” I thought, and then I began surfing the internet for a solution. “Maybe something by Bach, with a rhythm that matches the salamander’s movements?” When I finally discovered the harp version of Ave Maria and played it along with some of my salamander footage, I knew I’d struck gold.

icy scene

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  • A member of the “mole salamander” group (named for its burrowing habits), which includes Spotted and Tiger Salamanders.
  • Grows to over 7 inches long. Color variable: may be near black, dark gray, dark brown, or gray-blue. Light blue flecks are almost always obvious, especially along the lower sides of body.
  • Lives underground in deciduous forest habitats, even at high elevations within its range.
  • Breeds in ephemeral vernal pools, in mid-winter at southern end of range, and in March or April in northern areas.
  • Migrates (overland) very early to breeding ponds and pools; may even crawl over snow patches and ice.
  • Males form small groups of three or four in the breeding pool; they nudge one another with their snouts in hopes of discovering a female as she approaches the group.
  • A male and female will generally pair-up, leave the group, and go through an elaborate courtship ceremony that ends when the male deposits a sperm packet (spermatophore) and the female passes over it and draws sperm it into her cloaca.
  • Females deposit up to 200 eggs in small, gelatinous masses on grasses, twigs, branches, and other submerged objects.
  • Eggs hatch in 30-40 days; aquatic larvae transform into terrestrial juvenile adults 2-4 months later (by late summer).
  • Rarely seen outside the breeding season due to burrowing habits, but may occasionally be found under logs or stones.

The Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianium) is one of four Ambystoma species that have hybridized to form unisexual “species complexes” that have varying numbers of chromosomes (diploid, triploid, tetraploid, pentaploid). The other species in the complex include Blue-spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale), Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinim), and Small-mouthed Salamander (Ambystoma texanum).

An excellent discussion of these unisexual forms is found in Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka. An online article that includes photographs is: Unisexual Salamander Complexes.

Video Metadata
Snow Trekker – Jefferson Salamander
Snow Trekker – Jefferson Salamander

A multimedia celebration featuring a video of Jefferson Salamanders, migrating over snow patches, on their way to their vernal breeding pools. Brought to you by

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  1. Magical video and wonderfully entertaining & informative commentary. Thanks so much for all your hard work and dedication. Please keep it up!

  2. Thank you so very much for the work and care you put into these projects. What a gift! Absolute inspiration… in more ways than one. (Your determination and the snow trekker’s!) The music is beautiful (contributing to teary eyes) and the photography, timing… perfection. For one who is stuck indoors and far removed from springtime in full-swing down Southeast Texas way, this is such a treat. My day wasn’t going very well at all… and then I received an invitation to visit the new site. In a world of titled folks, I cannot think of another human being who has impressed me more. That’s not just the antihistamine talking! You’ll always have “rockstar” status in my neck of the woods! We are blessed – truly blessed to have your gift shared with us…

  3. Another miracle is that many populations of these Ambystomids are gynogenic. Great footage – thanks!

    • “Gynogenic” defined: a type of reproduction by parthenogenesis that requires stimulation by a sperm to activate the egg into development but occurs without fusion of sperm and egg nuclei.

      There are some pretty amazing and unusual genetic/reproductive abnormalities (normal for them, of course) among frogs and toads and fishes and reptiles that have to do with diploidy, triploidy, unisexual lineages, hybrids, and the like. Very technical stuff for sure, a bit beyond me, but of great interest to those who study the evolution and genetics of these groups (I presume John Duktig is a specialist in this field).

  4. thank you sir, very cool plus i was not aware that they could do that. you’d think the cold would slow them right down.

    • Yes, I was quite surprised to find them snow trekking, though I have read that they do this. How they generate enough “heat” to move along at a good rate is beyond me, especially given that they are cold-blooded.

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