To the Editor:
The amphibian migration will begin soon in our area, so I’d like to remind everyone that the Amphibian Crossing Guards will be out on the roads on dark, rainy nights –helping some very important members of our community cross the roads safely. Why does the salamander cross the road– and why should we care?
The amphibian migration is a truly remarkable phenomenon – and may be the best kept secret in the Sourlands! In early spring, thousands of frogs, toads and salamanders emerge from their winter homes to make the harrowing journey to the temporary (vernal) pool where they were born. There, they will lay thousands of eggs which hopefully will hatch and reach maturity before the pools dry up in the summer.
Who are these slippery sirens and how do they lure people of all ages from their winter homes on cold, rainy nights? Many just want to catch a rare glimpse of the almost mythical yellow spotted salamander. Once they do, they come out again and again, because it’s hard not to fall in love with them.
What’s so special about the spotted salamander? First, they can grow to 9 inches long and live to be 30 years old. I had lived in the Sourlands for 23 years before I saw one, which seems hard to believe since there are thousands of them here. However, these are solitary “mole salamanders.” They live mostly under cover except during migration. That’s one of the reasons that it’s important for you and your dog to stay on the trails in Sourland preserves. Our most charismatic neighbor might just be hiding out under the leaves!
Another amazing animal crossing the road this time of year is the wood frog – which can actually freeze in the winter (no heartbeat, no blood flow) and reanimate in the spring! Two-thirds of their body can freeze solid for up to seven months. They do this by making their cells super-sweet with glucose, basically herp antifreeze. When they migrate, they’re still very cold and slow – no match for oncoming traffic.
There are others including my person favorite, the spring peeper. The sweet song of the tiny tree frog promises that warmer days are on the way. These little cuties are no bigger than my thumbnail, and I could rarely find one as a child. Now, I can see dozens in a single night. Fun fact: a female may lay 750 to 1,200 eggs in a single night.
Why do these prolific parents lay their eggs in shallow pools that might dry up before their kids mature and move out? Fish love eggs, and they live in ponds, lakes and streams. So our heroes have developed a way to foil those predators – laying their eggs in a place where fish cannot survive. Plus, their favorite food, insect larvae, is plentiful in the vernal nursery.
Though they have adapted to avoid becoming fish food, they have not had time to adjust to the threats posed by humans. Roads and streets have crisscrossed their ancient migratory pathways. Even through their peak migration time usually occurs after rush hour, just one car passing every 4 minutes can wipe out 70% of the population. At that rate, it doesn’t take long for someone to become locally extinct.
Why does that matter? Amphibians play a very important role in our ecosystem. We are all very aware of one important service they provide – eating bugs. That’s important to me, because my garden and my family are basically insect magnets. I would much rather have an amphibian on the job quietly eating centipedes, slugs and mosquitoes, than for me to madly try to swat, spray or pick them off. It wouldn’t take long for crop damage to become a problem, and that would hit us all where it really hurts – our bottom line. There are other tasks they perform as well, for free.
So, I ask my Sourland neighbors to please stay off the road on rainy nights for a month or two, and if you see group of cold, wet souls with bright vests, flashlights and clipboards, please stop and say thanks.
Director of Communications and Development, Sourland Conservancy