By SARA ARTHURS
Walking in the parks, or even sitting in your backyard, you’ll encounter some of Ohio’s wild creatures — squirrels, bunnies, certain birds and, of course, mosquitoes. Other creatures living here, like reptiles and amphibians, might not be on your radar, but there’s a lot you can learn and appreciate about them.
“Salamanders are just so fantastic,” said Meredith Gilbert, communications specialist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
But, she said, you might not even realize they are there.
Salamanders are a type of amphibian, as are frogs and toads. Reptiles include turtles, snakes and lizards. (Also crocodiles, but these are generally not seen in northwest Ohio.)
Reptiles and amphibians are cold-blooded and hibernate in the winter, Gilbert said. Then in the spring they emerge, breed and “fatten up.” Reptiles have scales, which are “soft but not slimy,” Gilbert said.
Amphibians have soft, moist skin that is almost constantly wet. And most of them prefer to come out at night.
Ohio has 25 species of salamanders, 10 species of frogs and toads, and 47 types of reptiles, Gilbert said. (This is throughout the state; not all of them live in northwest Ohio.)
And she said there are plenty of misconceptions, such as that “Toads will give you warts … and that’s just not true.”
Toads do secrete a substance designed to make them taste bad, should a predator pick them up. It doesn’t usually harm humans but can mildly irritate your skin, so if you pick up a toad, wash your hands. But they are beneficial and eat mosquitoes and other insects, she said.
Salamanders are slimy, because their skin must stay moist for oxygen exchange. Gilbert said there are many different salamanders in Ohio, but you most likely won’t know they’re there.
“They’re extremely secretive,” she said.
Many salamanders come out in the spring and lay their eggs in vernal pools. These pools dry out after the spring rains, so they don’t have a fish population that might eat the eggs. Gilbert said one type, though, the hellbender, will breed in clear, fast-moving streams, nesting under a rock and launching themselves out to actively defend their eggs and nests.
The hellbender is Ohio’s largest salamander species, and can grow to 27 inches long. It doesn’t live here in northwest Ohio.
“People really think they’re ugly” and look scary, Gilbert said, but they’re harmless, and in fact having them in a stream is desirable, as it indicates that the water is healthy.
Most species of salamander live several years.
Some types have lungs and some have gills, Gilbert said. Most take oxygen through the skin.
Spotted salamanders are more common.
“They’re fairly small,” secretive, and live under rocks and logs, Gilbert said.
Eastern tiger salamanders are also found in northwest Ohio.
In general, there are more reptile and amphibian species in eastern and southern Ohio, where you might find more wooded areas and more fast-moving streams with rocky bottoms.
Gilbert said there are, however, a lot of them living here, but unless you’re looking in the leaf litter, “it is very easy to pass them by.”
Salamanders do indicate a good habitat, and they eat mosquitoes and other larvae.
“I just think they’re so cool,” Gilbert said.
Here in Ohio, some of the hardier species are “doing just fine,” but a number are “on the decline,” Gilbert said.
Aquatic salamanders can suffer “if they really need pristine streams.” Runoff from agriculture can get into the streams and cause issues.
In urban areas, like Lucas County, “habitat fragmentation is a huge problem,” Gilbert said. Some species need “a large spanse of continual forest,” as they do travel far to their vernal pools, she said.
Frogs, toads and turtles
The American toad is “by far” the most numerous of the frogs and toads in this area, Gilbert said. This is the one you often see in your garden.
Fowler’s toad is also in this area and is “again, very beneficial.”
Cricket frogs, which also live in the region, are small and sound like a cricket.
“Spring peepers are one of my personal favorites,” Gilbert said.
This frog, found locally, also has an interesting call, and has an X on its back.
American bullfrogs are what people tend to think of when they imagine a frog, she said. They can be found here, as can leopard frogs.
Frogs and toads begin their lives as eggs, then become tadpoles.
Gilbert said salamanders are similar, but some spend their adult lives in water, as well, while others may live on land.
Painted turtles and map turtles are found here and may be seen along the Blanchard River.
Blanding’s turtles, with bright yellow coloring, are found near Lake Erie, but aren’t as common in Hancock County. Gilbert said this is one wildlife officials are worried about, as population numbers have declined due to habitat loss.
Box turtles spend much more time on land, rather than in the water. They can close themselves in, with their head and legs going into their shells.
Males have red eyes and females’ eyes are brown.
Southern Ohio near the Kentucky border has more types of lizards than this part of the state, although Gilbert said you might find one type here: the five-lined skink.
Gilbert said “most people are afraid of” reptiles and amphibians.
She seldom gets questions about salamanders, but does get a lot of “fear questions” about snakes, like if they are venomous.
“You don’t need to fear them,” she said, adding that if you back away from a snake, it will also want to get away from you.
“They eat rodents. … They’re very beneficial in that regard,” Gilbert said.
The Eastern garter snake is “by far the most common,” Gilbert said. It’s found in every habitat — grassland, forest and backyards.
There’s a plains garter snake which is endangered in Ohio. It’s only found in three counties, because it requires a specific habitat of old-growth prairie. One of those is Wyandot County.
There is a Lake Erie subspecies of water snake found only around the islands of Lake Erie.
The black rat snake is Ohio’s largest, at 4 to 6 feet long, generally with plain black coloration. It’s most frequently found in the forest.
Other than very small populations of the massasauga rattlesnake, there are not venomous snakes in Ohio, Gilbert said.
Earlier this summer, Hancock Park District naturalist Michelle Rumschlag educated a group of Boy Scouts who were pursuing a merit badge on reptiles and amphibians.
“I’m excited … I like snakes,” one boy said.
Rumschlag outlined information on different species. The boys also watched the snakes living at Oakwoods Discovery Center eat dead mice. One of the corn snakes living there is about 18 or 19 years old, Rumschlag said.
Fox snakes are protected or threatened in many areas including Michigan and Ontario, but not in Ohio, Rumschlag said.
She also discussed venomous snakes.
“People have phobias of snakes,” she said, with one boy offering his grandma as an example.
If you see reptiles and amphibians, observe them “from afar,” Gilbert said. You can gently pick them up, but then return them. It is illegal to take them from the wild, and none of the species native to Ohio can be taken as pets.
She encouraged parents to teach their kids, “be gentle.” And also, “They’re not scary.”
These animals are essential for the ecosystem, she said.
To prevent further harm to these species, she recommended limiting the use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, which can enter and pollute the waterways.
“Plant a garden,” she said. And, “Pick up trash … It can be very, very simple.”
Interested in learning more? The Division of Wildlife has pages on each species at its website, wildohio.gov. Guides to Ohio’s reptiles and amphibians are available on the website as a PDF. They will ship a hard copy for free to Ohio residents. To get one, call 800-WILDLIFE