Why Did the Salamander Cross the Road?
By Michael J. Caduto
In mid-April 2021, Jenevra Wetmore—Sustainable Woodstock’s Program Coordinator—participated in an amphibian crossing event along Route 132 in Strafford, VT, where she shepherded this spotted salamander to safety. Photo Credit: Marya Merriam.
Why do we fall under the spell of the salamander’s vernal rite? What moves some people to venture out on a cold, damp night to watch them wriggle toward a shallow pool, there to intertwine in a clammy love dance?
Perhaps we glimpse in these lithe amphibians something of our own origin. Our distant past recalls an ancient teleost emerging from a primordial sea: no longer aquatic but not yet of the terrestrial realm. Salamanders also reflect a shared phylogeny, resembling a stage in the womb that we all pass through on our way to taking human form. Do we sense a primal kinship in our desire to usher them along their plodding pathways to the relative safety of a living pool?
The vulnerability of these endearing, soft-bodied sluggards is heightened by our knowledge that, in their drive to consummate rests the hope for a new generation. To find a dead salamander lying in the road is to witness the demise of a promise.
So every springtime people help salamanders achieve safe passage by shepherding them safely across rural roads. I used to participate in such a rite along Route 132 while living in Union Village, Vermont. (Lily Pond Road in White River Junction is another salamander crossing hotspot, as is Route 5 near the Upper Valley Aquatic Center.) When the “Big Night” arrives and salamanders begin to move—generally during the first spring rain when the ground thaws and the temperature rises above freezing—salamander guardians gather with raingear, flashlights and sandwich-board signs to warn off approaching motorists. Despite spending cold hours dodging cars racing by, this is a popular annual event in many places. Massachusetts even has a bluegrass group and a lager named Salamander Crossing.
These endearing, semi-aquatic vertebrates are inaptly named for a Greek mythological fire lizard called Salamandra—a creature that, some believed, could walk through fire. Possibly, this association arose because travelers came upon old campfires whose smoldering remains had been doused, only to roll aside the unburned logs to find salamanders beneath.
Most salamanders spend the winter hibernating under leaf litter, logs and rocks. When late-winter temperatures rise, the normally reclusive “mole salamanders” that live in our region make a grand vernal entrance, including the Jefferson, spotted and blue-spotted. (The marbled salamander, another member of this group, lays its eggs in autumn.)
If Andy Warhol had been a naturalist, he might have had the spotted salamander in mind when he said that everyone would have their fifteen minutes of fame. For most of the year, spotted salamanders live hidden in moist environments, quietly eating worms, insects, spiders and snails as they creep under logs and leaf litter, along streambanks and even through rodent tunnels. In March to mid-April—when the ground thaws, the temperature rises to about 42°F and we have our first evening of rain or high humidity—spotted salamanders appear en masse with their 6 to 8-inch long, shiny bluish-black bodies and two striking rows of yellow-orange spots meandering down the back.
Spotted salamanders travel up to a quarter-mile to breed in the same vernal pool each year. They often follow the same route and, in places, may even arrive at the pool in a similar order from one breeding season to the next. Some return to the same burrow after breeding. This synchronized march to the breeding pools is even more impressive because, similar to other species, spotted salamanders are mute—devoid of a mating call. But their quiet routine breeds success: spotted salamanders can live for up to twenty years.
Soon after they reach the breeding pool, males deposit sperm in capsules called spermatophores, which are then taken into the cloaca by the females. After the eggs are fertilized internally, within a week of reaching the breeding pool, females lay 100 to 200 eggs in gelatinous masses about 6 inches below the surface. Eggs hatch in 30 to 60 days into 1/4-inch larvae, which mature in about two to three months.
Many salamanders breed in vernal pools, which dry up later in the season. These ephemeral environments tend to lack predators that inhabit permanent bodies of water, such as red-spotted newts, fish and turtles. (Newts can devour a salamander’s entire clutch of eggs like amphibious caviar.) But vernal pools often go undetected and unprotected because they are only present part of the year.
In addition to citizen groups that muster springtime road-crossing assistance to salamanders, some aficionados are thinking long-term. Activists in Amherst, Massachusetts built tunnels under a popular salamander crossing. A study by a University of Massachusetts herpetologist revealed that 75% of the salamanders that found the tunnels made it safely to the other side. Vermont’s first road-crossing tunnels for salamanders were created in 2018 in Monkton.
So why does a salamander cross the road? To exercise a 160-million-year-old right-of-way that predates humankind, roads and automobiles. In order to satisfy a drive to procreate, the intrepid salamanders risk everything.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Check out the Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas (www.vtherpatlas.org) to learn more and find out how you can report “herp” sightings and support conservation efforts.
- Get in touch with your local conservation groups to volunteer helping with seasonal amphibian crossings.