Tuesday, April 22, 2008


High: 67° F
Low: 44° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy and calm.
Spring 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.)

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. . .


Anonymous said...

Another great post! Loved the history post, too, finding lost old towns are one of the many things I love about Maine.

I haven't saved any salamanders, but I've been know to risk amputation by helping a big snapper across the road a time or two. It really saddens me to see turtles killed by cars.


Me & my puppies said...

So crazy in lust, they forget to look both ways before crossing.

We have the same trouble with the terrapin turtles. Luckly, my college has a program in which we place fences along the roadways and for those who get through but not across, we "harvest" the eggs. Hatch and rise the young to be released when they are large enough.

Pippa said...

Don't know if we have any salamanders but we do have geckos. We love them lots. Especially when they eat the flies and the cucurachas.

Master has rescued terrapins before.


John Theberge said...

I see the squashed salamanders and frogs on my road too. I feel bad for the little fellas. They spend the winter hibernating and then the weather warms up and they come out for a night of passion and SPLAT! they're gone.

Eve said...

I'm sure they never knew what hit them! Poor little buggars! I too help the turtles cross the road and have scooped up a few large snappers from my not so large pond. I don't know how the people down the road at the stream like me dropping them off there but hey when it comes to snappers...its every man for himself! I like baby ducks more than turtles anyway! I used to love finding salamandars in the woods as a kid further south from here, but haven't seen any on my property since I've been here. :-(

Khyra The Siberian Husky said...

So, did you leave little wreathes by their bodies?

Silly Salamanders - they should take some advice from chikhkens before they attempt to khross the road!

Happy Vernal Pooling!

PeeEssWoo: Be sure to visit
http://thekholwooadokrew.blogspot.com/ or http://dazulsibes.blogspot.com/ fur some ahhhhhhhhh moments!

umekotyan said...

Good evening Ari.
It is an interesting article.
Japan can see amphibians in the water place of spring.
The frog is croaking there.
And, it is difficult to protect it from tires on a car.
I also regret while getting on the car every day.

from loved ume tyan

YourFireAnt said...

Those little spotted guys are acting just like college students, only not nearly as tall/visible.

Great post. I learned a lot from it (the spring pools, e.g.).


The Army of Four said...

Poor little guys! Maybe the town should erect "Salamander Crossing" signs and the Salamanders could go there to cross the road. Or can't they read? I always wonder how deer know to cross at those!
Play bows,

YourFireAnt said...

Don't the deer come first? then the signs? The people notice where deer have crossed for years (eons, probably), and erect the signs there.



Gus and Louie said...

Wow that is a cool salamander!! we are sure glad that your friend has volunteered their time to keep them safe..

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus and Louie

Kathiesbirds said...

I used to find spotted salamanders in the dirt basement of the house I grew up in in CT. I hope you can save a few to reproduce again for what beautiful amphibians they are! I can't imagine being a salamader crossing guard. How noble and hilarious all at once!

Sandpiper said...

An interesting post! I don't see as many salamanders as I used to. I think I've probably seen one or two in the past 10 years. It was a cute little orange spotted critter.

Marigold said...

Here in western WA, we have orange-bellied, rough-skinned newts. They love our pond. Fortunately for our budding caninaturalist, Cabra, and the Mighty Quinn, they rarely feel the need to commit suicide on the road. If this were the case, it would be quite hazardous since they are extremely poisonous. I hope Ari's salamanders are more benign, albeit more adventuresome.

Sharon said...

It was sad and interesting to read about the pretty little salamanders. I'm glad to hear that there are salamander crossing guards!

The story below about your town forest was interesting! I love to visit things created by the CCC.

Rusty says to Ari to keep up the good work!

Sid the Dog said...

Hmm... Here in Colorado, the good folks at the Department of Transportation are going to finance fancy wildlife crossing corridors over I-70 to allow various wild beasts to cross the road unmolested by SUVs. maybe salamander bridges are in order? We don't see many of these critters in our parts (too dry!) but I sure would like to sniff some myself! Paws off to the brave crossing guard...

Kapp pack said...

Poor salamanders! We hope the carnage stops soon!

Woo woo, Kelsey Ann

sugarcreekstuff said...

We don't have many salamanders here, but on my bike rides during the summer there will be nothing, then the next day squished snakes. Is it the moon? Is it love? I don't know.

JB's Big World said...

I feel so sad for the salamanders. They don't seem to be very smart. I don't think we have salamanders here. We have armadillos though! Ok, I know, not quite the same.....

Maverick the Pirate said...

Harrrrr Ari
Those salamanders sound crazy Harrrrr.
Cap'n Maverick the Pirate