Homeward Bound, Salamander Style

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Story by Samantha Riffle, live blue(tm) Service Corps volunteer

A great trek is happening right under our noses in the Boston area. My education in regards to animal migration was mainly through Morgan Freeman waxing poetic nostalgia over the march of the Emperor Penguin; growing up near the Sierras in California I was also told about the great journey of the ancient salmon to swim upstream to breed. Never in all of my studies had I heard about the unsung hero: the salamander! The more I learned about these creatures, the more fascinated I became. For example, salamanders are important to medical research for their ability to regenerate limbs! Additionally, salamanders are indicators of environmental health and help scientists better mitigate threats facing ecosystems.

Spotted salamander NPS photo
Spotted Salamander (Photo credit: NPS public gallery)

Towards the end of the winter, runoff from melting snow, increasing rain, and rising groundwater create small bodies of water in woodland hollows called vernal pools. These grounds provide a seasonal habitat for salamanders and other vertebrates, and are perfect breeding ground for the spotted salamander in particular. Every year, the salamander will risk their lives to travel to the vernal pools. Once they make it, they spend two to three weeks mating, with the females then laying egg masses on underwater sticks or plant stems. The tadpole-looking larvae hatch later that month, and make the opposite trek to go burrow themselves underground for the winter. The next year those new salamanders will make the same journeys as their ancestors before them.

MA Vernal pool RK photo
A vernal pool found in Lexington, MA (Photo credit: Ryan Kingston)

The migration to the vernal pools is quite risky for the salamander due to its proximity to human populations. In many places in Massachusetts, salamanders have to cross busy roads and/or highways to make it. This might have proved to be extremely detrimental to the salamander population if it weren’t for some plucky environmental conservationists. In places like Amherst, a company created small tunnel underpasses below the highways so salamanders and other amphibians could safely pass. Other areas have formed “bucket brigades”- having volunteers (including members of the Service Corps) pick up the salamanders in buckets to safely transport them across the highways.

Even though the United States has more species of salamanders than any other country in the world, these populations are still facing threats from deforestation, pollution, and climate change. You can help by raising awareness of their plight on May 5th, known as Salamander Saturday. Mass Audubon and the Service Corps also support salamander migrations around the state, typically in the early spring. You can visit Mass Audubon’s website or the Service Corps calendar for related projects.

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