A three-month exhibit titled “A Salamander Tale” will wriggle into Plum Creek Nature Center in March to enlighten, entertain and educate visitors about this fascinating group of amphibians.
The grand opening is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, and it will feature interactive exhibits, games, crafts, the nature center’s own salamander celebrity, Shoebert, and more.
The free exhibit will run through May 31 and it includes salamander-shaped furniture displaying text and graphics, a video game guiding a virtual salamander through a river environment, and lifelike dioramas of different salamander species.
Exhibit hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sundays, noon-4 p.m.; closed on Good Friday, March 30, and Easter, April 1.
“A Salamander Tale” was organized by the Purdue Agriculture Exhibit Design Center at Purdue University and is brought to the Forest Preserve through funding provided by The Nature Foundation of Will County. Hosting temporary exhibits at Forest Preserve nature centers is a good way to expand what is offered in a cost efficient manner, said Diane Carson, a facility supervisor for the Forest Preserve.
“Temporary exhibits allow us to offer high quality nature programming that can constantly change and be fresh and relevant,” she said.
Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve is the perfect location to host the salamander exhibit because the site is home to three types of the smooth-skinned amphibians.
“We have blue-spotted salamanders, spotted salamanders and tiger salamanders,” said Suzy Lyttle, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. “And we are pretty lucky because the eastern U.S. is known to have the highest diversity of salamanders in the world.”
Salamanders are such an intrinsic part of the preserve that Plum Creek Nature Center has adopted “Spot,” a blue-spotted salamander, as its mascot.
Salamanders aren’t found everywhere because they need a habitat that includes deciduous trees and nearby wetlands, Lyttle said.
“The deciduous trees are important because they provide leaf litter for the salamanders to hide under,” she said. “The wetland is usually a temporarily flooded area without a fish population, making it safe for the salamanders to lay their eggs.”
Of the 650 species of salamanders found around the world, 20 species live in Illinois, with about seven of those living in Will County. However, mudpuppies, a threatened species, haven’t been seen in Will County in many years.
Lyttle said salamanders are super cool because of how diverse their patterns and colors are. “Our blue-spotted salamanders are just that,” she said. “They have bright blue spots. Others are bright orange, some have bright yellow spots and some are marbled. It seems like they would be something right out of the rainforest, but really they are special to our eastern forests.”
In addition to being different colors, they also have different habits. Mudpuppies stay under water in the larval stage, Lyttle said. Eastern newts have an extra life stage – terrestrial juvenile. And other salamanders can regrow limbs.
Salamanders have tails and most have four fingers and five toes. Some salamander species have lungs and others don’t. It’s tough to spot salamanders at times because they’re either underground or hiding most of the year, Lyttle said. “In the spring, they migrate to a wetland to mate and lay eggs. After that, they go back into hiding.”
Salamanders are amphibians, just like frogs. “Both have no scales and smooth, sometimes slimy, skin," Lyttle said. "They both go through a life cycle that includes an egg, larva (tadpole) and adult stage. The word ‘amphibian’ actually means ‘double life’ because of this metamorphosis process.”
In contrast, lizards, which are reptiles, have scales and claws and are usually found in drier habitats. Also, reptile babies look like tiny adults and do not go through a life cycle.
Having a salamander exhibit that educates and public about the species is important because, as with many plants and animals, some of them are in jeopardy due to declining habitat and pollution.
“Salamanders are very sensitive because they breathe through their skin and if they are not living in moist areas, they can dry out,” Lyttle said.
Because of their sensitivity, salamanders are considered an “indicator” species.
“If you have salamanders in a wetland, then that habitat is clean and healthy,” Lyttle said. “If salamanders disappear, then something is wrong with the habitat.”
Five salamander species in Illinois are threatened or endangered. A conservation effort for priority species created by Chicago Wilderness includes the blue-spotted salamander. Another species that is in trouble is the eastern hellbender, which can be found in only a few counties in southern Illinois.
“They are a very unique species of salamander because they spend their entire lives under water,” Lyttle said of hellbenders. “They are also the largest salamander in North America, measuring up to 2 feet long. Like the other threatened or endangered salamanders, they are battling habitat loss and pollution.”
“A Salamander Tale” exhibit includes information on hellbenders because Purdue University is involved in a research project concerning the species and its rehabilitation, said Lyttle, who worked in the university's hellbender lab at one point.
Lyttle said she fell in love with hellbenders as she learned more about them, and she is hoping visitors to "A Salamander Tale" will walk away with an appreciation for the amphibian's diversity and interesting characteristics.
“Salamanders also have big eyes and big smiles,” she said. “How can you not fall in love with that?”
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