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Samuels: Salamander crossing guard

04/23/09 7:55AM By Sam Samuels
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(HOST) Daffodils are blooming, trees are budding, and most of the maple syrup harvest is in. But for commentator Sam Samuels, April in Vermont brings a very different - and distinctly slimy - rite of spring.  

(SAMUELS) It was 10:30 on a damp spring night. I was standing in a rubber raincoat, the hood pulled up against a steady drizzle, pacing up and down a dirt road, sinking occasionally into ankle-deep mud, a flashlight in each hand, running their feeble pools of light across the rutted road, looking like a man in search of a lost cufflink or a thrown hubcap. But, I wasn't looking for those things. I was looking for Ambystoma maculatum, the spotted salamander.

Because this was the salamanders' big night, and I was a salamander crossing guard.

Spotted salamanders spend most of their year underground, gorging on earthworms and other invertebrate treats. But they're beautiful. Up to nine inches long, their chunky bodies are a pearlescent black with a brilliant dusting of yellow polka dots. Their wet skin glistens with a jewel-like sheen.

Once a year, they come out of hiding to mate. And like many of us, they need the right conditions. It has to be night, it has to be warm, and it has to be raining. In Vermont, this usually happens in early April. They emerge by the thousands and creep along ancestral migration routes to the pools where they were hatched. There, they carry on a frenzy of egg laying and fertilizing. Afterward, their eggs dutifully scattered on the bottom of the water, they return to their holes and go back to business as usual until next year.

The trouble is: people. Or rather, roads and cars made by people. Each year, many salamanders get flattened, their big night of love unceremoniously nixed beneath the tires of the family stationwagon. Even the road surface itself is dangerous, coated in toxic oils and salts that are easily absorbed by the salamanders' sensitive, slimy skin.

So as I do every year on the first warm, rainy night of spring, I had driven to a place where the salamanders cross the road and was carrying them over by hand. I was part of a network of crossing guards that cover the best-known danger zones for salamanders.

I arrived at my assigned stretch of road alongside a large pond. A father and son were already on patrol. The boy's name was Julian, and he was eight and a half and a quarter years old.

"Look at this one!" Julian said, pointing to a spotted with a particularly rounded belly. "She is just loaded with eggs!"

Julian had better luck than I did. Or maybe just a brighter flashlight. By the end of the evening, he had helped fifty-two spotteds across the road, I a meager ten. When bedtime arrived, Julian's father led him home, leaving me to tramp the country road alone. Eventually, I got in my car and called it a night.

Driving home, in the glare of my high-beams, I saw what looked like a stick in the road. I slowed down. The stick moved. I put the car in park, got out, and gently carried one last salamander to the other side of the road, thinking, "Have a great night, number eleven."

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