A Stormy Love Affair With Salamanders

For many salamanders, survival now depends on the kindness of humans

  • T. Edward Nickens
  • Apr 01, 2003
BY ALMOST any standard it was a miserable spring night in central Massachusetts: temperatures in the low 40s, skies dumping rain on the last remnants of dingy snowdrifts. A miserable spring night for all but the salamanders, and they were on the move. Right by my nose, in fact. As I sprawled on the sopping ground on a wooded ridge just outside of Amherst, a sausage-sized salamander crept slowly over the leaves, awash in the red-filtered light from my headlamp. Perhaps eight inches long, black as onyx and drizzled with neon yellow spots, it was a male spotted salamander. Behind him was another and another. Like miniature milking cows headed to the barn, spotted salamanders worked their way downslope. Seven walked by, nose-to-tail, in the manner of circus elephants. Another, oddly enough, gave a wood frog a piggyback ride. They streamed downhill, mere inches away, oblivious to a human presence.

Each year during the first warm rains of early spring, I try to witness one of the natural world’s least-heralded wonders: the Big Night. The Big Night is a magical confluence of the calendar and the weather that impels mole salamanders toward their breeding pools. After spending most of the year underground, these salamanders—spotteds, Jeffersons, tigers and others of the family Ambystomatidae—take advantage of wet, moderate conditions to emerge and hightail it (relatively speaking) toward woodland depressions called vernal pools. Filled with water for only part of the year, vernal pools offer them a safe place to breed—free of many fish predators that would relish every salamander egg, larva, juvenile and adult.

The woods outside Amherst are famous for salamander migrations, mostly because of the salamander tunnels constructed under Henry Street in 1987. They draw hundreds of salamanders—and scores of onlookers—during likely weather. Yet salamander migrations occur all over Massachusetts and the rest of the country. "People hear about Amherst and they drive all the way over here," says Scott Jackson, a University of Massachusetts wildlife biologist, "when the same thing happens in a lot of their backyards."

I’ve lain in wait for migrating salamanders from the Catskills to the Great Smokies to the rolling Piedmont woods 15 minutes from my North Carolina home. When early spring skies open up with a gloriously dismal overnight rain, I don waders and a wide-brimmed hat and head out to my favorite breeding pool, a comma-shaped depression at the base of a soaring ridge of beech trees. A few years ago I crunched through remnant drifts of snow along the trail to the pool, my flashlight beam slashing through fog. Wading carefully in the calf-deep water I found vicious-looking diving beetle larvae hovering like hawks and scattered giant water bugs and whirligigs. Spotted salamanders writhed in the shallows, rubbing and nudging one another in a courtship dance that can last several minutes.

Last year, at that same pool, I was a few days late to the Big Night dance. Scores of softball-sized jelly masses of salamander eggs clung to underwater twigs and stumps, and spring peepers and chorus frogs called with a din of peeps and trills so loud I could barely hear myself shout. A freak early thunderstorm crackled overhead as I carefully lifted mossy logs to spy on marbled salamanders hidden underneath. What a stew of primordial sights and sounds! The frog calls like shrieking ghouls, the electric flash of lightning, the gasp of breath as a brimful of rain-water dumps down the back of my slicker—I’ve never understood why salamander watching doesn’t attract a larger following.

It should, for mole salamanders need a helping hand. Each year they emerge into a strange new world, unprepared for whatever changes might have altered the woods since their last trek. A depression that hosted salamanders for decades might easily disappear from one year to the next. Perhaps a road has been built. Or a seep has been ditched, plowed and planted. Or a block of bottomland forest has been logged.

Alone in the wet woods, I can only hope that the number of people willing to protect these fragile habitats is larger than the number willing to weather the salamander storms of early spring.

North Carolina resident T. Edward Nickens often braves inclement weather to visit and write about wild places.

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