Volunteers usher salamanders to safety
04/28/03 12:00AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) A rite of spring has been gaining attention around Vermont. It's the annual mating migration of spotted salamanders and other amphibians to the region's vernal pools and ponds. It happens on a wet night in April and it's all about love.
VPR's Susan Keese reports:
(Keese) It's been raining all day. Now it's dark, and the salamanders are on the move. They're headed for an amphibian love fest. The chatter of mating wood frogs means the party's already happening in a shallow lake of snowmelt in the woods across the road..
Salamanders and frogs have been making this trip since the last ice age. The only thing that's changed are the roads crossing their ancient pathways and the cars and trucks that can smash them flat.
(Sounds of cars and voices) "I got one! I think a car is coming."
(Keese) The people in the road are dedicated to not letting that happen. In raingear and reflective vests, they're scanning the asphalt with flashlights. At either end of a quarter-mile stretch, a sign says, "Slow, Salamander Crossing."
(Kids) "We found another one!"
(Keese) Seven-year-old Jim trains his light on the creature wiggling in his hand. It's seven inches long, with a long tail, bright yellow spots and what looks very much like a smile etched on its tiny face.
(Jim) "I like their spots a lot."
(Keese) Jim, his cousin Brittny and Brittny's dad are part of Dummerston's Salamander Crossing Brigade. It's one of about 18 such groups in Vermont's southeast corner. There are others around the state. Volunteers say it feels good to be saving lives, however small and slimy.
Jim's light reveals another salamander up the road. It looks like a stick, except that it's moving. A volunteer stops traffic while Jim carries the salamander across the road to the edge of the vernal pool.
(Conversation with a stopped driver) "What's going on?"
"We're saving salamanders. There's a breeding pool across the road."
(Keese) The kids announce their latest tally to a volunteer with a clipboard. She'll report the totals to Brattleboro's Bonnyvale Environmental Education center, the group that organizes this project. Bonnyvale naturalist Patty Smith is the salamander crossing volunteer coordinator. She watches the weather and starts making calls when she thinks the animals are ready to move.
(Smith ) "It's the first warm rainy night of the year. A nice drenching rain throughout the day, temperatures above 40 degrees and the rain seeps down into the ground where these salamanders are and it just wakes them up."
(Keese) The salamanders are nocturnal. Smith says humans rarely see them, except on these few nights, when woodland pools are mobbed with mating frogs and courting salamanders.
For nearly a decade, Bonnyvale volunteers have helped amphibians cross the roads. Now, with a grant from the department of Fish and Wildlife they're also gathering information. They're monitoring the impact of busy roads on amphibian populations. They also hope to protect the temporary vernal pools where the animals breed. They might even come up with a plan for some sort of salamander expressway to help them cross safely.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese in Dummerston.
Bonnyvale has a handbook for people interested in rescuing salamanders, available at www.beec.org