How did the salamander cross the road? Thanks to a team of volunteers

If you’re exploring one of Nova Scotia’s many wooded areas on a rainy April night and see a group of people with flashlights and high-visibility equipment on the side of the road, there’s a good chance they’re guarding a salamander crossing.

Yellow-spotted salamanders are the largest salamander species in the province. They spend most of their lives underground, but surface for about two weeks each spring to reproduce.

It is easy to predict where these salamanders will cross to reach their breeding ponds – they live for around 30 years and use the same paths throughout their lives.

But the crossings can be risky, so they need a little help.

“You can only imagine how much things have changed over a 30-year period, especially in urban areas,” said Clarence Stevens, an environmental consultant involved in several conservation efforts of local and provincial volunteers.

“Many of these salamanders have to cross roads or even more roads to reach their breeding grounds now. As a result, many of them end up being run over.”

Stevens said it’s important to make sure your hands are clean and free of any products before touching a salamander. (Judy Keating / Facebook)

This is where Stevens and his group of volunteers come in.

They come out at night in perfect conditions and look for large groups of salamanders near the road. Then they help them cross.

“On hot, rainy nights we can help, like, 40 or 50 or more than 100 … because they’re doing a mass movement right now,” Stevens said.

Stevens and other nature enthusiasts have been monitoring salamander crossings for years. But last year he partnered with the nonprofit Halifax Field Naturalists to encourage people across the province to come out on their own to help with crossbreeding.

Laura Eamon is one of the volunteers who started working with the group last year. She had never seen a salamander before hearing about the Stevens campaign, but she was hooked after the first night.

Eamon said he had never seen a salamander before he started volunteering with the group. (Sent by Laura Eamon)

“It’s just something you can do, it’s a couple of hours, it’s immediate and you can really see the impact with habitat improvement,” Eamon said.

He said his most rewarding experience was digging ditches on the side of a path to allow salamanders a place to spawn safely.

The next day, the moat was covered with hundreds of eggs.

“So the amphibians were able to see the new location and spawn there,” Eamon said. “And it didn’t exist before we came out. So it was just the most incredible feeling.”

Species in “rapid decline”

Yellow-spotted salamanders are not classified as endangered or endangered, but Stevens said their numbers are “rapidly declining” like many other amphibian species.

“Amphibians are very sensitive to changes in their environment,” he said.

“So every time a body of water gets polluted or leaked off the road or something, and even the change in temperatures, it’s killing them.”

He said the species’ egg survival rate is also low. The spotted salamander lays its eggs in water, but the place must meet certain conditions.

Yellow spotted salamander eggs are shown in a puddle of water. (Angela Myers / Facebook)

“They can’t use pools, ponds or lakes large enough to hold fish because the fish devour eggs like crazy,” Stevens said. This means that they often spawn in puddles, which is not ideal.

Because of this, ATVs pose a great risk to salamander populations, Eamon said.

“You know, the funniest part of being on an ATV is walking through puddles, but those puddles are perfect pools for amphibians to spawn.”

He said the volunteers try to look for the eggs on the trails and move them to the side to give them a better chance of reaching maturity.

When salamanders disappear from an area, Stevens said it has a big impact.

“They play such an important role in our environment, that when they disappear from water bodies, those water bodies become more infested with insects. And there is a whole cascade effect.”

What to do if you find one

Anyone who goes out for a rainy April walk can help a salamander if they come across one. Stevens said she has some simple tips for would-be rescuers.

If you are moving them out of the way “take them in the direction they are facing even if you don’t see the water as they may leave the water because they have already spawned and are heading back into the forest again.”

The group claims to have rescued every type of amphibian in the province. (Hunter Stevens / Facebook)

Stevens said clean hands are a must for handling salamanders.

Eamon said he takes his stepdaughters with him to look for amphibians. He suggested that anyone interested can learn how.

“Clarence is a connoisseur of salamanders and is able to … look at maps of your community with you and find spots that could be potential hotspots for amphibians,” he said.

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