And now, the February species of the month: the blue spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale)! This species has to be one of my all time favorites. All salamanders are adorable, and the blue spots are no exception, being super tiny and super smiley. However, they have very complicated reproductive strategies which makes them pretty awesome in my book.
I spotted a blue spot!
Firstly, many of the populations of blue spotted salamanders are becoming unisexual, all female populations. That’s right, ladies, these salamanders are moving away from the use of males. Occasionally they undergo parthenogenesis (“virgin births” in which they spontaneously double their genetic information and lay eggs that develop without use of sperm), but more often they utilize a very fun technique called kleptogenesis. KLEPTO-genesis. These ladies steal the sperm of other species in order to activate their eggs (no fertilization occurs, only the enzymes of the sperm are utilized) and form little clones of themselves.
Stop, thief! She robbed the sperm bank!!
Blue spotted salamanders live in the Great Lakes states and up into Canada.
The blue spotted salamander range.
They breed in the spring (March-April) and are known to steal the sperm of at least 5 other species of salamanders: Jefferson’s salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), the smallmouth salamander (Ambystoma texanum), the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum/mavortium), and the streamside salamander (Ambystoma barbouri).
A range of salamanders blue spots will steal sperm from.
So what about the poor blue spotted salamander males? They do still exist is some isolated populations, although they may yet disappear. Well, as it turns out, they have an interesting behavior of their own. The males like to “cross dress” in order to ensure that a female will use their sperm. Sound confusing? Let me explain.
I’m a pretty girl.
Blue spotted salamanders court each other with a dance. The male dances for a female and, if she like his dance, she will follow him. As she follows him, he deposits his sperm in what is called a spermatophore (a densely packed “ball” of sperm) and she picks it up and undergoes internal fertilization. SEXY stuff.
Blotched ensatinas courting (no pictures of blue spots, but it is the same idea)
A cross dressing male will behave like a female and, when a male comes to court him, he will follow. After the dancing male deposits his sperm, the cross dresser will then deposit HIS sperm ON TOP of the dancer’s sperm. This way his sperm is placed in the environment and is more likely for a female to pick it up. Why doesn’t he just court the female? Well, he passes for a female, doesn’t he? Apparently this strategy works, and it works really well. Genetics show many females are fertilized by males that did not court them.
Baby blue spot!!
So the real story of the blue spotted salamander is… it sucks to be a male. Sorry, boys. Blue is now the ladies’ color.