“Big Night” for Salamanders

By Ted Watt Gazette Contributing Writer

It has happened every year, since the glaciers melted and forests returned to New England. And it will happen again this year, from now to mid-April in our area.

When the snow is largely melted in the woods and it starts to rain during the day, keep your eye on the temperature. If the rain continues and it remains above 40 degrees as darkness descends, it’s Big Night for the Pioneer Valley’s spotted salamanders.

The eight- to nine-inch, jet black and canary yellow-spotted amphibians will leave their woodland habitats and crawl to temporary spring pools (also known as vernal pools) where they mate and lay their eggs.

In the pools they dance—sinuously, seductively—males drawing females to their prepared sperm packets deposited on the pool bottoms. Courted females pick up the sperm, fertilizing their egg mass internally. The females then search out a twig—not too shallow, not too deep—on which to attach their clear, jellied masses of eggs.

The eggs slowly develop in the chilled water. The top of the water will freeze, but the masses, if placed properly, will escape. Depending on rains, however, the water level may drop, occasionally exposing the eggs and killing a whole year’s hatch. It’s risky in the short run, but the salamanders’ ancestral memories breed long-term success.

Upon hatching, the creatures’ carnivorous larvae wiggle out of the egg masses. They devour water fleas and midge larvae, and are preyed upon by water tigers and red-spotted newts. It’s a fine balance. Enough survive and metamorphose into adults by midsummer to carry on the species.

Over the years vehicle traffic began to affect the population—significantly fewer salamanders made it to the pools. The amphibians protect themselves from predators with a lima bean-shaped poison gland under the jaw on right and left. Their black and yellow coloring serves as a warning of the poison to other animals. But as they cross our roadways they have no defense against passing vehicle tires.

That’s why the Henry Street salamander tunnels in North Amherst were constructed. The first of their kind in the nation, these structures (just south of the junction with Pine Street) were installed in 1987 by the Town of Amherst’s Public Works Department with the cooperation of Cowls Lumber (the landowner), and the aid of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and many volunteers.

The crossing from their upland habitat above Henry Street to their vernal breeding pools below has been greatly altered. The tunnels enable the spotted salamanders to cross under the road risk-free. If you’re in North Amherst and have a free moment, stop and take a look at these structures. They’re worth seeing any time of year.

Don’t miss our favorite Pioneer Valley amphibians on Big Night. When the conditions are right, put on a head lamp, pile on your warm and waterproof clothes and make your pilgrimage. You may be out for hours in the cold, wet darkness looking for the salamanders. If you find them, perhaps you will be able to save some of them from the tires.

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

7 responses to ““Big Night” for Salamanders”

  1. Melissa says:

    Is there a way to sign up for an e-mail list to be contacted when Big Night volunteering is available? I would like to take part in Big Night 2018 and have been trying to find a way to be informed of it.

    • Jessica Schultz says:

      Hi Melissa,
      Thanks for your interest! Here are a couple of options to consider:
      1) You can register for our 2018 Salamander Tunnel Maintenance day at Henry Street in Amherst which is typically a weekend in March depending on when conditions are right (and before Big Night). If you register, you will be notified of the date and time. You can register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/salamander-tunnel-maintenance-registration-41758516848
      2) Last year we started a facebook group to help keep folks informed. If you use facebook, you can join the group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/henrystreetcrossing/. Any information we post to the group gets pushed out to group members, including volunteer dates and potential Big Night times.
      3) In the past we have put an outgoing message on our phone system on evenings when conditions look favorable. We do this based upon conditions in Amherst, which may or may not vary from other vernal pool locations in the region.
      4) The Henry Street crossing is fortunate to have so much interest from a caring community, but we also encourage care of other highly impacted crossings that don’t have the attention or the safeguards that Henry Street does (where helping the salamanders can be done safely and legally). So we also encourage folks to take a look for other crossing sites in their own communities or neighborhoods.

      I’m checking in with our naturalist on staff to see if there is more I can add. I’ll reply again, if there are other suggestions. Thanks again! – Jessica

  2. Don Ogden says:

    I heard there were no Salamanders seen this Spring at the Cushman site? Is that true?

  3. Don Ogden says:

    I heard there were no Salamanders seen this Spring at the Cushman site? Is that true?

    • Ted Watt says:

      Hello Don,

      Somehow your question slipped by us… Our apologies. We DID have salamanders in 2018 and 2019. The Henry Street population appears to be doing fine. Up and down each year depending on weather and conditions…but it is holding steady!

      Thanks and agains sorry we missed your question,

      Ted Watt

  4. Elicia Andrews says:

    Hello, I am a teacher at QRHS and I was wondering if you had any data available to share relating to the amphibian migration. My student is interested in determining if there has been a change in migratory dates over time. You seem to be the most local site that could have longish term data relating to the event.

    • Jessica Schultz says:

      Hi Elicia,

      This is the response from our naturalist Ted Watt…Elicia,
      Thank you for your very apt question. Unfortunately we have not kept data about the timing of the spotted salamander migration on Henry Street in Amherst. Our work is site specific and spans over 30 years…but our data collection has been terrible. The only data we have is counts of salamander egg masses in the breeding pools over the years…not every year, but occasionally. Please email me using my email off this site [ please check our staff page for address https://www.hitchcockcenter.org/about-us/our-staff/ ] and I will send you the egg mass count data. It doesn’t indicate any trends but it is fascinating in itself.

      Salamander movement is EXTREMELY weather dependent as you probably know. So I do think it could make very interesting comparisons over time.

      Thanks again for your question,
      Ted Watt

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