ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Every spring on the first warm, rainy night, salamanders and frogs move from their winter-woodland homes towards the vernal wetlands for breeding. This annual migration is known to scientists and volunteers as “the big night.”

Volunteering For The Cause

This mass migration can happen on a single evening, or it can take several nights. It all depends on weather conditions, which need to be just right.

Leann Kanda shows the markings of the Yellow Spotted Salamander. (Nancy Coddington/WSKG)

Amphibians begin to emerge from their winter homes when it is damp, raining and the temperature reaches above 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those were the conditions in March when volunteers Katie Williams and her eight-year-old daughter, Jillian, donned reflective vests, grabbed their flashlights and came out to assist the spotted salamanders and frogs across a busy road near Ithaca.

“We are out at Thomas Road helping the amphibians cross the road,” Jillian said. “A car just went by, hopefully not crushing any amphibians.”

Jillian Williams holding a spotted salamander. (Photo Courtesy Katie Williams)

Volunteers, like Jillian and Katie, help to move frogs and salamanders across the road to their springtime breeding grounds. This research and conservation effort helps reduce amphibian road kill and brings awareness to population decline from vehicles. Katie said Jillian has been learning about amphibians at her school, Caroline Elementary. She is excited how passionate Jillian is about this conservation effort.

“If us coming out at 10 o’clock at night on a school night is going to keep that fire going, then it is well worth it,” Katie said. “It is all she has been talking about for weeks now.”

Migration Disruption

One of the greatest threats to these salamanders on these migratory nights are vehicles. Often roads have been built separating the salamander’s home in the wooded-upland area from their breeding grounds in the wetlands. They tend to move all together in a concentrated migration, so that is a lot of animals moving at once. They generally move in the early evening, which happens to be when there is greater traffic.

Leann Kanda, Associate Professor of Biology at Ithaca College, has researched the movement patterns of yellow spotted salamanders and their long term survival rates, which can be up to 20 years.

Kanda is tracking the health of the population. She has spent years microchipping spotted salamanders, injecting a tracking chip into their abdomens which can be detected by a computer or chip reader.

“Over the years, I have tagged almost a hundred spotted salamanders and by tagging I mean that we are actually injecting into them a microchip, just like you inject a microchip into your dog or cat.” said Kanda.

Kanda injected microchips into the salamanders and then returned them back where they were found. She has two blue coolers containing computers and batteries acting as an automated reader detecting tagged salamanders as they pass by antennas at the shoulder of the road. When a tagged salamander moves to their breeding grounds and across her reader, it pings on her computer and she can collect data like what time and when the salamander showed up.

A Spotted Salamander walks under Kanda’s research antenna. (Nancy Coddington/WSKG)

“Every time the salamander walks across my wires, the reader picks it up,” Kanda explained.

She has been gathering data at this site for ten years and her preliminary findings are that only about ten of her tagged 100 salamanders show up each year, suggesting that only ten percent of her sampled population have survived. Kanda’s research will show if the spotted salamander population is in trouble.

“And if it is, that will give us some ammunition to try and push for some stronger conservation efforts that require political policy and money,” said Kanda.

Due to the varying spring weather, this year’s migration is still taking place across the region. On a warm rainy night this spring, you might see some of these salamanders crossing your path.

 

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