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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

These signs will be springing up around Windham County when the salamander migration begins.


How does the salamander cross the road?

With the help of the BEEC Salamander Crossing Brigade

BRATTLEBORO—Every spring, once the snow melts and the temperatures warm up, spotted salamanders start their nocturnal journeys in search of vernal pools — small bodies of water that fill with spring runoff and dry up in the summer — to spawn the next generation.

But when that journey involves crossing a roadway, the result is often flattened salamanders.

The Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC) of West Brattleboro has been trying to reduce the carnage by training people to be crossing guards in order to protect salamanders and other amphibians during migration time.

One of those training sessions, led by BEEC naturalist Patti Smith, took place last Thursday night at the Dummerston Community Center. About 15 prospective volunteers turned out to see whether they had the right stuff to be a member of BEEC’s Salamander Crossing Brigade.

Smith and her fellow volunteers at BEEC take their jobs seriously. They have identified and mapped more than 40 crossing sites in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Newfane, Putney, and Westminster West.

BEEC uses the data gathered from previous migrations to keep track of salamander habitats and activity. Usually, migration begins during the first warm rain (42 degrees or higher) of the spring. This first warm rain usually happens in mid-April, although Smith said that BEEC received reports of salamander activity in Guilford and Vernon early last week.

“You always have to be ready, because you never know when the amphibians are going to need you,” Smith said.

So why do salamanders need crossing guards?

Smith said that it’s because they are nocturnal burrowing creatures that live under rocks and rotting logs, and are rarely seen during the day. As a result, they are very light sensitive and tend to freeze when they are in the headlights of a motor vehicle, reducing the odds of a safe journey.

The determination of the male salamanders to get to what Smith called the “salamander party” might also play a part in why road crossings are so dangerous.

Smith said that the males gather in groups called “congresses,” where as many as 200 salamanders at a time whirl and gyrate around a vernal pool and deposit spermatophores, the white packets of genetic material excreted by the males.

The females then arrive, and are beckoned to the spermatophores by the males. If a female is interested in a particular batch of spermatophores, she will draw it into her cloaca to fertilize her eggs. She will then lay a clump of 50 to 250 eggs attached to a stick or pond vegetation. After the eggs have been laid, the courtship is over, Smith said, and the salamanders return to their respective burrows, where they feed on earthworms and other soil invertebrates.

Vernal pools are important to salamanders, Smith said, because there are fewer predators, such as fish, bullfrogs, and snapping turtles. If the conditions are right, the larval salamanders will hatch before the pools dry up in the summer.

While salamanders are still abundant in Vermont, their numbers have declined in recent years because wetland drainage, pesticide use, and road construction have destroyed so many of their habitats.

“That’s why they need crossing guards,” said Smith. “If we can reduce the mortality rate from cars, we have a better chance of having more salamanders survive.”

What does the well-prepared salamander crossing guard need? Smith said rain gear, a very bright flashlight with extra batteries, and reflective clothing that is visible to motorists.

“You want to be as conspicuous as possible,” said Smith.

She drove home that point when she took the prospective volunteers outside to a simulated crossing point in order to do a demonstration on the importance of reflective clothing and a good flashlight. In the darkness behind the Community Center, the volunteers without them were nearly invisible.

A bucket for gathering up multiple salamanders and a spatula for removing the casualties from the road were also items recommended by Smith. She also advised would-be guards to keep their eyes on the road and step carefully, because salamanders are hard to see.

“Once they’re on the ground, it’s amazing how fast they disappear into the woods,” said Smith.

Once the call goes out, Smith said, volunteers report to the crossing sites they have signed up for and keep track of the number of live and dead salamanders they spot. Those numbers are reported to BEEC.

Smith said that she has nearly 150 people on her salamander guard list, “but there’s no way of knowing who’ll will show up.”

She is constantly looking for more volunteers. More information is available at www.beec.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #96 (Wednesday, April 13, 2011).

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