Why Did the Salamander Cross the Road?

By March 5th, 2014 at 11:00 am | Comment

Count and protect migrating amphibians. Help salamanders cross the road at night with the Salamander Crossing Brigades.

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.

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A spotted salamander spied on one of AVEO’s volunteer nights. Photo courtesy of Brett Amy Thelen.

Springtime means that love is in the air. Bees are buzzing, birds are chirping,  animals are mating–and salamanders want to do it too. That is, if they can reach their breeding grounds safely. Salamanders, known for their permeable skin and their capacity to regenerate limbs, make use of rainy spring nights to trek from their underground forest habitats to nearby ephemeral pools to lay eggs. In their travels, salamanders often have to cross roads, and yet so far, they don’t have crosswalks.

To help ensure salamanders’ safe passage to their breeding grounds, the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory (AVEO), the citizen science arm of the Harris Center for Conservation Education in New Hampshire, trains citizen scientist volunteers as crossing guards for the northeast’s amphibians every spring. Salamander migrations are highly threatened by automobile traffic- rates of deaths on roadways are predicted to be high enough to lead to local extinction of spotted salamanders in the next 25 years according to a study published in Wetlands Ecology and Management. Citizen scientist volunteers are trained to safely usher amphibians across roads and enumerate the species that they see. Through efforts over the last six years, AVEO’s collaboration with citizen scientists has prevented over 15,000 amphibians from being victims of roadkill.

In what AVEO calls, “Big Nights” as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigades project (official site), citizen scientist volunteers work collectively at crossing brigades for wood frogs, spring peepers, and salamanders, including the protected Jefferson and blue-spotted salamander species. Hundreds to thousands of amphibians can cross in one night depending on temperature and precipitation conditions. AVEO studies snow melt and weather patterns, among other variables, to predict nights of maximal amphibian movement on which they schedule their crossing brigades. Salamanders generally prefer rainy nights when temperatures rise above 40, but unpredictabilities arise making designating Big Nights the most challenging, yet critical, aspect of the project. This year AVEO anticipates that early to mid-April will be salamander crossing season this year in southern New Hampshire.

View Amphibian Tracker 2014 in a larger map

AVEO also trains citizen scientists to help protect the salamanders of New Hampshire by identifying new road areas which salamanders traverse to reach their breeding grounds. “We add new crossings to our map every year, all based on the knowledge of our citizen science network. Our volunteers are essential. We simply wouldn’t have a Salamander Crossing Brigade program without them,” says Brett Amy Thelen, science director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education. According to Thelen, one of the project’s biggest accomplishments was inciting the City of Keene, NH to purchase a parcel of conservation land encompassing multiple amphibian crossing sites identified by citizen scientists. “The land was originally slated for development, and the City’s decision to purchase it was based in large part on the data collected by our volunteers, which demonstrated that the site was an important migratory amphibian corridor in Keene.”

AVEO leads another citizen science project, the Vernal Pool Project, where citizen scientists help locate new vernal pools, the ephemeral breeding grounds of salamanders and other amphibians. Breeding in permanent bodies of water is hindered by resident fish populations which prey on salamander eggs. As a result, the transience of vernal pools provides salamanders with a safe breeding location that they can return to each spring. The Vernal Pool Project has identified 130 vernal pools in southwestern New Hampshire, enabling AVEO to implement forestry practices designed to protect the pools from the potential negative effects of timber harvests. Because vernal pools are generally within 1000 feet of salamanders’ normal habitats, protecting the surrounding forest areas is also important for salamander conservation.

Want to participate in a night of helping hundreds of colorful and noisy critters get to the other side? Salamander Crossing Brigade volunteer training sessions will take place on the evening of Thursday, March 13 in Keene, NH and the morning of Saturday March 29 in Hancock, NH. To find out more about salamander migrations, you can check out University of Connecticut Professor Mark Urban’s “amphibian tracker” on his lab website.

Image: Courtesy of Brett Amy Thelen (top), Urban Lab (map)


Sheetal R. Modi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University where she studies how bacteria develop and spread antibiotic resistance. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and when she’s not growing her bacterial cultures (and repeatedly killing them), she enjoys science communication and being outside.

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