Naturalist leading event to protect yellow spotted salamander migration

A yellow spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), the target species for the Salamander Crossing program. (Provided photo — Jesse Rock)

PAUL SMITHS — Possibly in just a few days, as night falls, thousands of yellow spotted salamanders will cross roads and trails to mate and spawn in puddles. A group of informal bodyguards, led by naturalists from the Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smith’s College, will help those amphibians get there safe.

“They’re at risk to be stepped on or run over while they’re crossing roadways and trails,” said Lead Naturalist Thompson Tomaszewski. “So it’s kind of a local tradition for folks, and especially students from Paul Smith’s College, to go out and help them cross the road.”

Yellow spotted salamanders can grow to around 8 inches long, with rounded faces and characteristic yellow spotting against darker colored skin. They’re mole salamanders, which means they spend most of their time under the earth, leaves and logs, Tomaszewski said, with some recorded living as long as 30 years.

While Tomaszewski’s been doing this for a while, they decided to make it a formal event this year, now that they’re working full time as naturalists instead of students.

“It’s something that I’ve just decided to put on as it’s a personal and professional interest of mine,” Tomaszewski said.

Between Friday, April 26 and Saturday, May 4, Tomaszewski will send out alerts 24 hours in advance for registered volunteers to assemble at the VIC around 8 p.m.

“I am going to be going out every evening,” Tomaszewski said. “Basically, when I see the first salamander, anyone who is registered for the event will get an email, text or phone notification based on what they prefer.”

The event will run every night until the salamanders stop migrating. Tomaszewski said the magic happens for just a few nights every spring, for three, four or maybe five nights, if the weather is right.

“It’s always those first warm, rainy spring nights, late April to early May,” Tomaszewski said. “The snow starts melting and forming what we call vernal pools.”

These are temporary pools of water where salamanders are safe from predators, and their eggs are safe from fish. The eggs will hatch in one to two months. Yellow spotted salamanders return to the same vernal pools every year, typically living in terrestrial environments 100 meters to 250 meters from the pools, Tomaszewski said.

Making sure these salamanders maintain a healthy population is important because they’re carnivorous and eat insects — playing an important role in pest control. Additionally, they can also play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change, Tomaszewski said.

The salamanders eat the insects that would otherwise be eating leaf litter. When they do that, it releases carbon from its stored location in the leaves, into the atmosphere, Tomaszewski said.

When the migration starts, participants will meet at the VIC and Tomaszewski will go over some guidelines about how to ethically handle the salamanders. The group will then carpool.

“Once we get close to where their migration is, we’ll go on foot from there so as to make sure we minimize the vehicle impact,” Tomaszewski said.

Tomaszewski and other naturalists know where the migrations will happen, but don’t want to share the location outside of the event to protect the animals. They suggested that participants dress for cold, rainy weather and bring a headlamp or flashlight. Volunteering is open to all ages.

Sign up at https://events.eventzilla.net/e/salamander-crossing-2138749400 or contact the VIC at 518-327-6241 for more information.