The Wild Ones club recently visited the Duke Forest with biology professor Paul Manos, Ph.D., and herpetology professor Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., to look for salamander eggs and other early spring delights.
It was warm and sunny, and wildflowers sprouted up alongside the trail, but most of the trees were still bare. “It’s kind of nice to look in a forest without any leaves,” says Manos. “They get in the way a lot.” We examined winged elm and shagbark hickory at the trailhead, then windflower and bluets right beside the path. Many early spring wildflowers take advantage of the higher levels of sunlight that reach the forest floor before trees develop leaves.
Manos was delighted to find a patch of sphagnum moss beside the trail. He says sphagnum, also known as peat moss, is usually found in higher latitudes, like the United Kingdom and Canada, where it grows in huge fields known as moorlands or quaking bogs.
When we reached a small pond, Grunwald swept a long-handled net through the water and leaf litter and pulled out a gelatinous glob that promptly became a highlight of my week/month/year: spotted salamander eggs. I don’t know what the rest of you spent your childhoods doing, but I spent a good portion of mine looking for frog eggs (and sometimes finding them) and wanting to find salamander eggs (and never finding them). But here they were, in front of me, tinted green with algae and glinting in the sunlight and close enough to touch.
This strikes me as an appropriate retort to many unrelated things. Calculus test? Yeah, okay, but I saw salamander eggs. The grosbeaks that Wild Ones went looking for two weeks ago are still thwarting me? Yes, and I still haven’t gotten over it. However: salamander eggs.
The egg mass was less firm and less slimy than I expected. It felt remarkably similar to jelly. “This gel,” Manos says, “apparently doesn’t allow oxygen to move through it very well,” but the developing spotted salamander larvae need oxygen. The solution is ingenious: a partnership with green algae. A species of algae grows on the egg masses and penetrates individual eggs, and eggs with more algae grow and develop faster.
The algae are photosynthetic, creating carbon and oxygen products from carbon dioxide gas and sunlight. That process likely provides supplemental oxygen to the salamander embryos, and one study found that the salamanders also absorb carbon produced by the algae’s photosynthesis.
That carbon fixation is the first known example of carbon transfer from algae to a vertebrate host, though similar partnerships have been found in invertebrates, and the authors of the study speculate that similar processes may be occurring in other amphibians as well.
The particular species of algae that grows on spotted salamander eggs is in the Oophila, which according to Manos means “egg lover.” The partnership, however, is temporary. “It’s a very short-lived, ephemeral story,” Manos says.
In addition to the spotted salamander eggs, Grunwald also found a marbled salamander larva. Marbled salamanders and spotted salamanders are in the same genus, but they have different approaches to breeding. Marbled salamanders, Grunwald explains, lay their eggs in the fall “where they think a pond is going to be” instead of waiting for ephemeral pools to develop in spring. How do they decide where to lay eggs if the pond isn’t even there yet? Scientists aren’t sure, but salamanders “live in a chemical world,” Grunwald says, relying on taste and chemical signals.
Since marbled salamanders laid their eggs last fall, their larvae have had time to hatch and start developing, though they aren’t yet adults. Spotted salamanders, meanwhile, don’t breed until spring—when the ponds actually exist—so their eggs haven’t yet hatched. For the larvae of both species, developing in small, temporary ponds helps protect them from large predators like fish.
Both marbled and spotted salamanders are in a genus sometimes called mole salamanders because they live underground when they’re not breeding. “There’s an entire city underground here of burrows and holes and crevices,” Grunwald says, a “whole porous network of spaces.” The mole salamanders can shelter underground, but they can’t travel far without coming back to the surface. “It’s not a highway,” Grunwald says.
I would like to know what it is like to be a mole salamander, navigating by taste and smell and spending much of the year in small spaces underground.
Before we left the forest, we went searching for lycophytes, an ancient lineage of plants that first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. “In the Carboniferous Period 350 million years ago, these guys ruled,” Manos says. The lycophytes we saw in the Duke Forest were tiny, bright green sprigs in a small stream, but their ancestors were trees. Those ancient lycophyte trees are “responsible for all of the coal that we use,” says Manos. “The transformation of their organic material via millions of years of heat and pressure to metamorphic carbonized rock is the definition of coal.”
The lycophytes in the stream are members of the Isoetes genus, also known as quillworts. They look and feel much like grasses, but they are only distant relatives of true grasses. Grasses are flowering plants, while quillworts are lycophytes. Flowering plants and lycophytes diverged hundreds of millions of years ago. Lycophytes use spores to reproduce and have a life cycle similar to ferns. Even their leaves are anatomically and evolutionarily different from the leaves of flowering plants; lycophytes use “their own approach to making leaves,” according to Manos.
Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025