Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 9, 2009

An Everyday Miracle

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:59 pm

Miracles really do happen every day. They are a common part of everyday life, although most of them are easy to overlook due to their scale. I’m not talking about changing water into wine or making the Cubs a winning team. No, I’m referring to those multitude of small miraculous happenings such as birth, growth, and transformation. The natural world is full of such events – there for the viewing if you look in the right place at the right time.  The metamorphosis of a salamander nymph into adulthood is one of those tiny transformative miracles.  This is essentially a process in which a fish becomes a land roaming beast (Normally I would say that this is no small feat except it does involve the acquisition of four small feet).

To catch the transformation of the Smallmouth Salamander it’s best to hold them in temporary captivity to observe them as they hatch and grow. In nature, the tiny hatchlings are impossible to find and catch since they hide in the bottom debris of the vernal pools. Once you find some, you need to hold onto them for a while. “My” salamanders began their captivity as eggs (see earlier Naturespeak) and I’ve tracked their development for about a month now. In outward appearance the change has been remarkable.

This miraculous process is driven by pituitary hormones. Each cell reacts differently to the chemical signal. Some of them, for instance, feel the urge to become feet and legs while others answer the call to become lungs.

Upon their initial emergence, they were but simple  swimming heads with feathery gills. The early nymphs are fish-like in all regards, breathing with three pairs of external gills and swimming with the aide of a large tail fin. From the get-go these characters are voracious predators which begin to feed on daphnia, aquatic insects, and even each other if the opportunity presents itself. Fueled by this flow of nutrition, their landward bound process proceeds at a rapid pace. Within a few short days they sprouted a pair of front legs, each endowed with three rudimentary toes (see below). Eventually two more toes accompanied the others to make a grand total of five.

Along with a steady increase in size, from really small to just small, their coloration becomes more diffuse and speckled. If you look closely at these speckles,  you’ll see that some are yellowish and others are dark olive and all are “star-like” in appearance. These spots, especially visible through the thin tail membrane, are pigment cells called chromatophores. By re-distributing the pigments within the cells, the tiny creature can become dark or light – depending upon the mood. We get into dark moods also, but express our feelings in a much different manner.

With the arrival of a set of back legs, about two weeks later, a major internal change is also underway (see below). Those baby lung cells are beginning to get their act together and the nymphs begin to make regular trips to the surface in order to gulp air. The course of the next month will see the gills shrink and disappear as the lungs take over the primary respiration responsibilities. Changing from a gill breather to an air sucker in two months- now that definitely is no small feat!

At present, “my” Smallmouth Salamanders still have very large heads in proportion to the rest of their bodies (see here). These big-headed smallmouths have about a month and a half to go before they complete their miraculous transformation and forsake the water for the mucky land. I will release them back to their native pool before this happens.

Although I won’t be able to witness it, I know their heads will grow proportionally smaller, along with their mouths, and they will forget all that they went through. A 1927 study on metamorphosing salamanders concluded that they actually suffer “memory loss” upon loosing their gills. This is probably a good thing – a salamander is likely to get an attitude if it knows that it is the product of a miracle.


  1. I LOVE your blog, BTW, I can totally relate to your love of nature and you make me laugh sometimes.

    I have a question maybe you can answer. I’m raising some little black tadpoles. Not sure, but I think they might be cricket frogs? Last night after they’d been in a dark room a little while, I turned on the light and looked at them. The front half of their bodies was much lighter and I could see two dark eyespots (at least I think that’s what they are). I thought it was the lighting so I changed it from the side to overhead. No difference. This morning they are dark again and I can’t see any spots. What happened?

    Comment by Jill Lawrence — May 12, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  2. It is incredibly amazing how frogs become frogs (I mean, hello! Their lungs develop and they grow legs–how freaky is that?!) Not to mention even human babies–they too go from aquatic to landlubbers!

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — June 14, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

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