March of the Salamanders

Have you heard the squirrels and chickadees outside your window refueling on sunflower seeds?  Have you seen the early morning sunlight defrosting the earth?  Have you smelled the fresh, crisp air welcoming a new season?  This is the sure sign that March has arrived!  This is also the time of year when, beneath the snow and frozen soil, a host of amphibians snooze in yellow-polka dotted pajamas.  They await their big moment of the year… and if this year is like most, it is only a few weeks a way.  These black, eight-inch long spotted salamanders are called mole salamanders.  And when the first thawing rain reaches them, their big moment begins.

On the first rainy nights after the ground thaws, with temperatures above 40°F, many salamanders begin the annual trek to their breeding pools.  No obstacle is deemed insurmountable, as the enticing vernal pool and thoughts of breeding lie ahead.  Once in the water, buoyant and gregarious, the salamanders assemble for their annual ball.  The males arrive first, but they aren’t shy about getting the dance started once the females appear.  This courtship ritual typically occurs in vernal pools — temporary wetlands that hold spring rain and snow melt.  In this habitat, amphibian eggs are safe from predators, such as fish.

When the weather is right, find a local vernal pool and invite your children on a sala-meandering adventure.  Dress properly, don’t forget your camera, and watch where you step - these little creatures are quite delicate and blend into their surroundings rather well.  During your vernal pool visit remember, never remove egg masses from their attachment site!  Below is a book list that may help you get oriented so you can point out salamander eggs and other cool discoveries along the way.

Salamander Rain  by Kristin Joy Pratt-Serafini

The Salamander Room  by Anne Mazer

A Salamander’s Life  by John Himmelman

Snakes, Salamanders & Lizards  by Diane Burns

A Field Guide to the Animals of Vernals Pools  by Leo P. Kenney and Matthew R. Burne

This year the salamanders will once again head to the pools they have used for hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years.  However, our increasing sprawl of houses, shopping centers, roads and cars make it challenging for these little guys to arrive to the ball on time, if at all.  In areas where salamanders are forced to cross wide, busy roads, populations of these animals are likely to disappear.  Can salamanders survive the impact of this new source of mortality over the long term?

One thing you can do to help these cool creatures is to gather your young friends and participate as a salamander crossing guard.  To get more information about this project please visit our web site at http://www.beec.org/projects/salamanders.php. You can also avoid driving on rainy nights in March and April.  Should you be out driving on such a night, keep an alert eye tuned for “little sticks” in the road, a great task for antsy passengers.  If you can safely pull over, a closer look might reveal a salamander bewildered by this world of asphalt and rushing tires.  Give it a lift across the road and you will be helping to perpetuate an old tradition and saving a very important animal in its essential march!