High: 67° FSpring is all about vernal pools here in the woods of Maine. Here’s a picture of Ari modeling how best to find one in the hollows of a town forest. (Apparently, one cannot accurately verify a vernal pool unless one is knee-deep in said pool. Go figure.)
Low: 44° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy and calm.
These magical little oases appear as the snow melts and then collects in terrestrial depressions. They’ll hang around for a few months and then, poof! they magically disappear sometime around the 4th of July.
Vernal pools are crucial components of spring ecology: with no inlets or outlets, they lack predatory fish. This makes them the perfect breeding grounds for many amphibians, who relish the muck and lack of hungry intrusion.
We’ll write more about vernal pools in the next few weeks, but right now, we have some more pressing business to attend to.
For the past two days, the caninaturalist and I have been on a self-appointed suicide watch. Our local population of spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) is inexplicably trying to annihilate itself. We counted thirteen casualties this morning alone—all on a small stretch of dirt road near our little fire pond. (and this on Earth Day, no less!)
This is a file image of a spotted salamander, taken from the UC-Davis Department of Biology webpage. It bears only a slight resemblance to the spotted salamanders on our road. Smashed salamanders are considerably less photogenic than file photo salamanders.
The caninaturalist is amazingly adept at finding the squashed specimens on our dirt road, and though she always gives them a thoughtful sniff, she doesn’t disturb their flat little amphibian carcasses. This may be because salamanders excrete a toxin that protects them from many predators.
Clearly, however, it does not protect them from car tires.
We can’t for the life of us figure out why these salamanders keep throwing themselves under large vehicles. Maybe they’ve been reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps they're protesting gas prices. My colleague, Dave Potter, says he thinks they’re just sex crazed.
That’s definitely true this time of year, but usually salamanders wait for a warm, rainy night before getting busy. Then they slither up out of their winter nests and make their way back to the vernal pool where they were born. The males go first and spend a good few days duking it out amongst themselves like a bunch of high school jocks. Then females show up and the mating madness really begins.
For some reason, our salamanders aren't waiting for a warm rainy night. Maybe it’s because winter ran late this year, or because the smell of spring is positively intoxicating right now (I certainly second that second emotion). Either way, we’ve got to do something. And fast: the carnage is becoming too much even for Ari to bear.
Our friend, the wonderful author Janisse Ray is a salamander crossing guard in her spare time. These trained volunteers don reflective vests, headlamps, and a whole lot of moxie. Then they spend a good part of damp spring nights literally stopping traffic whenever a band of horny little amphibians crosses the road. She's says she gets a real sense of satisfaction from knowing she's helping these little critters make it safely to their romantic trysts.
Ari doesn't know much about romance, but I'm sure she'd be a proponent of safe sex if she knew what it meant--especially if it meant fewer amphibian casualities each night.
I wonder if the crossing guard captain would be willing to add an exuberant caninaturalist to his staff? I'll even loan her my headlamp or sixth-grade crossing guard sash. I'm sure it's around here somewhere. . .