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Celebrating the Year of the Salamander, Part II

June 14, 2014   |   Brett Amy Thelen
A spotted salamander migrates across a sandy road shoulder on Big Night. (photo © Tyler Hogan)

2014 is the Year of the Salamander

Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) — a national coalition of biologists, land managers, and individuals dedicated to the conservation of amphibians, reptiles, and their habitats — has designated 2014 as the Year of the Salamander, a time to illuminate, educate, and celebrate all things salamander. In salute, here’s a story from the Harris Center’s salamander files.

Salamanders Can Stop You in Your Tracks

A young Salamander Crossing Brigade volunteer peers intently at the remarkable salamander in his (clean, wet) hands. (photo © Bruce Boyer)

A young Salamander Crossing Brigade volunteer peers intently at the remarkable salamander in his (clean, wet) hands. (photo © Bruce Boyer)

Every spring, we train volunteers to serve on Salamander Crossing Brigades at amphibian road crossings throughout the Monadnock Region. These heroic volunteers count migrating amphibians and safely usher the animals across roads during one or more “Big Nights” each spring.

At sites with a significant volunteer and amphibian presence, we put up temporary “Salamander Crossing” signs to warn incoming drivers of the extra activity on the roadway. One Big Night last spring, a young family was driving through our amphibian crossing at North Lincoln Street in Keene. Like many people, they saw our signs, slowed down, and wondered a bit at all the hoopla to protect what they assumed was the ubiquitous red eft. Midway through the site, I watched as the car quickly came to a halt and the father tumbled out of the driver’s seat in a flurry of excitement. A spotted salamander — three times the size of a red eft and adorned with bright yellow polka dots — had crawled in front of his car, stopping the grown man in his tracks.

He got down on his knees to take a closer look, exclaiming, “I’ve lived here for 28 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before!

Spotted salamanders are common inhabitants of Northeastern forests, but they spend 95% of their lives under the forest floor, only venturing above ground a few rainy nights each year to migrate to and from their breeding pools. Unless they inadvertently find their way into your unfinished basement or you know where to look for them on rainy spring nights, you could easily spend 28 (or 48 or 68…) years living in New England and never lay eyes on one.

An excited girl holds a spotted salamander in her hands for the very first time.

Seeing a spotted salamander for the very first time can be a transformative experience. (photo © Brett Amy Thelen)

The excited father began unbuckling his toddler from her car seat — the car in the middle of the road, its doors wide open — so he could share his wonder with her. To keep things safe, I scooped up the salamander and convinced the family to pull over into a nearby cemetery, where we could examine the critter without worrying about oncoming traffic. Everyone piled out of the car, eyes wide. The five-year-old asked if she could touch the salamander. (Yes, gently and with wet hands.) The toddler peered intently at the creature’s bright yellow spots. The mother answered an incoming call on her cell phone, and was so eager to share everything I’d just told her about the salamander that the caller couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Efts are truly lovely, but spotted salamanders — with their impressive size, charming smiles, and traffic-sign-yellow spots — have stop-you-in-your-tracks-and-then-tell-everyone-you-know-all-about-it charisma.