Heifer Hill

Spotted Dina Kail.

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Deep within the still chill soil, a host of amphibians snooze in yellow-polka dot pajamas. They await their big moment of the year. These black, hefty spotted salamanders are of the genus Ambystoma, the mole salamanders, denizens of the dark. Like moles, they live in soil tunnels, feeding on worms and other invertebrates. Only on rainy nights do they come to the surface.

Solitary and territorial most of the year, these salamanders are not immune to the allure of spring. When the soil above them feels warmer than the soil below them and soaks with the rains of spring, their fancies turn to thoughts of love. On those first rainy nights after the ground thaws and when temperatures are above 40°F, these salamanders begin their annual trek to their breeding pools. No obstacle is deemed insurmountable (although some might prove to be), as the lure of the pool and the other spotted salamanders exerts its pull.

Once in the water, buoyant and gregarious, the salamanders assemble for the Ambystoma Ball. The males arrive before the females, but they aren’t shy about getting the dance started. David M. Carroll, in his book, “Swampwalker’s Journal,” describes the scene: “It seems that all of the salamanders I have been looking for all spring are here, and have all become one, in a mesmerizing black mass of interweaving sun yellow spots... a great communal congress of salamanders continually weaving among themselves in a dense, nearly spherical mass.”

These courtship rituals typically occur in vernal pools — temporary wetlands that hold spring rain and snow melt. In this habitat, amphibian eggs are safe from predation by fish, but each year the young develop in a race with the sun as the pools dry. The salamanders’ longevity (20 years or more) assures the survival of their genes even if developing young sometimes lose the race.

Their ancestors returned to this region with the temperate forests as the last glacier trickled away far to the north. For the thousands of years that have ensued, spotted salamanders have prospered. Superimposed upon this ancient world, however, is a new world of houses, shopping centers, roads and cars. In areas where salamanders are forced to cross wide, busy roads, populations of these animals are likely to disappear. What about populations of amphibians that must cross even moderately traveled rural roads? Can populations survive the impact of this new source of mortality over the long term? Research suggests the answer is no.

If you have a soft place in your heart for amphibians, or just a pragmatic interest in conserving biodiversity, join a salamander crossing brigade. Each year dozens of Windham County residents don reflective vests and raincoats and head to a known crossing site. If you think you’d like to join them this year, please send an e-mail to my address below, or visit beec.org to learn more.

The next best thing you can do is to avoid driving on rainy nights in April. Should you need to be out driving on such a night, do so slowly and keep an alert eye tuned for little sticks in the road. If you can safely pull over, a closer look might reveal a salamander bewildered by this world of asphalt and rushing tires. Give it a lift across the road and you will be helping to perpetuate a very old tradition and assuring one inhabitant of earthy darkness a great night at a vernal pool party.

Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec.org.

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