This fellow is a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), a relatively common species (although, like most amphibians, their numbers are declining). I'm not sure what it was doing in my front yard. Spotted salamanders generally prefer forested areas, living underground or under loose bark on trees. They're a beneficial amphibian, eating snails, underground grubs and earthworms (OK, that last part is not so beneficial but I have tons of non-native earthworms in my soil so I can spare a few).
Behind my yard is some great salamander habitat - wooded, with vernal pools (they have water only part of the year) for breeding. Most people are surprised to find out that salamanders breed right after the first thaw of the year (or in January and February in the South). I wouldn't be surprised to find this guy back there. I wonder if a predator carried him up into my yard or if he's searching for new habitat.
Whatever the reason his presence reminds me that my garden is part of the larger ecosystem. I tend to focus on the species I see regularly in the yard - the insects and the birds - and forget the less obvious visitors and residents. This little salamander reminds me that even the animals we don't see share our space and are important components of the local environment. We're all connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.
- Most amazing thing I learned about spotted salamanders while researching this post - they can live up to 30 years!