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Tiger salamanders: hostas' best friends

If you have hostas, you will be fortunate if you have a tiger salamander around. You probably will not know it because they spend a lot of time in leaf litter and their underground burrows that can be as deep as two feet. They are great to have in the garden because every night they come out to devour one of hostas' worst enemies, slugs. They also eat snails, worms, and a variety of small insects.

Tiger salamanders are thick-bodied amphibians with short snouts, thick necks, sturdy legs and a long tail. They can grow to be about 14 inches long, but most average between 6 to 8 inches, and can live to be 20 years old. They are found throughout the central and eastern United States, southern Canada and central Mexico. While these are all called tiger salamanders, they do not look alike. The ones found in the southern states are gray or greenish in color with stripes or blotches of brown. The ones found in Minnesota are black with yellow stripes or blotches and some are black with no markings at all.

Most adult tiger salamanders overwinter in their burrows. In early spring, often before the ice has melted, females lay 30 to 50 eggs around underwater vegetation. The young are born with gills and live in the water until summer when they metamorphose, or change so they can live on land. While they do like water and are good swimmers, they are almost entirely terrestrial as adults, and usually return to water only to breed.

The number of tiger salamanders is declining and there are a several reasons why this may be. Firs, a single salamander has about a 50 percent chance of breeding once in its lifetime because they live very solitary lives. With wetland destruction much of their natural habitat has been destroyed. Often eggs are laid in semipermanent wetlands and after the young hatch, the pond may dry up before they are ready to leave the water. If they are born in a pond where there are fish, the larvae are good to eat. Studies are also being conducted on the effects of agricultural pesticides and pollution on salamanders.

When frightened, adult secrete a milky toxin from glands on their backs and tails. If you handle a salamander always wash your hands because this toxin is slightly poisonous.

To attract salamanders provide an undisturbed area where they can dig burrows, and mulch part of your garden with dead leaves or leave a pile in a corner for them to hide.

Toads, and loads of eggs

The American toad is probably the most common amphibian which people see because it likes to live in lawns and garden settings. Toads are nocturnal, they sleep during the day and feed at night. One toad can eat as many as 50 to 100 insects at a time. That's as many as 3,000 bugs per month! A toad's diet includes mosquitoes and their larvae, flies, slugs and cutworms, to name a few.

How do you know if the little amphibian in your garden is a toad or a frog? All toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. Toads are known by their dry, warty skin and swollen bumps on their heads. These bumps are called paratoid glands, and they contain an irritating substance used to ward off predators. Again it is only slightly toxic to humans, but you should always wash your hands if you have handled a toad.

Toads too are mainly terrestrial, living on land. The female toads return to water in the spring and lay thousands of eggs in gelatin-like strings up to four feet long. Tadpoles hatch from the eggs and live in the water until they develop legs and move onto land. Toads can live up to 15 years and sometimes longer.

To encourage toads to take up residence in your garden, all you need to do is provide them with a little shelter and water and avoid using chemical pesticides whenever possible. The pesticides reduce their food supply and can be toxic to the toads themselves.

Broken clay pots or heavy foliage provide great homes for toads. They also like a clay saucer or other shallow container filled with water on the ground nearby. Toads drink through their skin, so be sure the container is low enough for the toad to hop into. Toads hibernate underground, but if you continue to provide them with a happy home and a shallow swimming pool, they will return to your garden each spring to help you with some of those pests.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.