The salamanders’ Big Night

Yesterday evening, the Western New York Land Conservancy hosted a fascinating event at Grand Island Town Hall. The title of the event was “A Big Night for Salamanders.” The courtroom was full of people who wanted to learn more about salamanders. People came in groups. Some people brought their kids, who asked good questions and were very interested in the salamanders. In fact, because yesterday evening was the regular evening for the Conservation Advisory Board to meet, we held a short meeting and then all attended the salamander presentation. 

Because tonight or tomorrow night could potentially be the Big Night, the salamander presentation is being held in other places, as well. One that I know about is in the Hudson Valley in the eastern part of New York State. If you’re in the Walkill area, there is an event at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, at the Gardiner Library, 133 Farmer’s Turnpike. It is sponsored by the Walkill River Watershed Boat Brigade and will feature a presentation by Laura Heady, conservation and land use coordinator with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
This is Nancy Smith, executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy, who introduced the main speaker for the presentation on the salamanders’ Big Night.

This is Twan Leenders of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. He is a herpatologist and a conservation biologist. He spends a lot of time exploring the world of salamanders and talking about them.

I will share Twan’s presentation on salamanders in a journalistic style. We’ll start with the cast of characters and then we’ll ask the usual journalistic questions (who, what, where, when, why, and how).

Here are some of the varieties of salamanders that we are likely to see in Western New York. They include:

  • spotted salamander (black with yellow spots): “This is probably the most common salamander.” It lays eggs in a tennis ball-sized clump. One thing that is unique about the spotted salamander is that algae live inside its cells in a symbiotic relationship. The algae get into the salamander eggs and they survive and even thrive together. The salamander eggs provide the algae with a nitrogen-rich environment in which to thrive, while the algae, via the process of photosynthesis, provide the salamander eggs with needed oxygen.
  • Jefferson’s salamander: also known as a mole salamander. Its larvae are fast swimmers and are predators. They eat tick and mosquito larvae.
  • four toed salamander: they are primitive and small and often escape detection.
  • red spotted newt: They hibernate in mud. They like vernal pools. Vernal pools are small bodies of water that are not permanent. They tend to be full of water in the spring. Later in the year, they dry up. Thus, no predators, such as some species of fish, can live permanently in a vernal pool. When the vernal pools dry up, the red spotted newt leaves the pool and goes into the woods. It can be recognized by its distinctive orange color.
  • redback salamander: This amphibian has neither lungs nor gills. It get its oxygen through its skin and its mouth. In addition, it has a tongue that can shoot out and catch prey.
  • Northern slimy salamander: It has a very descriptive title, with truth in advertising. It is slimy, not to mention sticky. If you pick one up, it will become glued to your hand, and you’ll have to work to remove it. It lives in the woods and on steep slopes. It has no lungs and it uses its tail for balance.
  • mudpuppy: They live in streams and in rivers. They have gills for their entire lives. They eat fish and crayfish.

What? The event is called the Big Night. It occurs early in spring, on a chilly, wet night.

Who: Salamanders. Amazingly enough, all salamanders come out on the same night.

Where: Millions of salamanders emerge from the woods to make their way to vernal pools. Some of them will cross roads to get to their destination. Frogs will come out, too.

Why: The amphibians are returning to their birthplace to breed.

How: By any means possible. They are determined to get back to their birthplace. Unfortunately, street crossings are dangerous for salamanders because of cars. In many place, volunteers watch out for the salamanders, to make sure that they get across the road safely.

So, you’re probably wondering,why does it matter that the salamander crossed the road and why do people make sure that the salamander gets to the other side without becoming road kill?

For one thing, salamanders are an indicator of the quality of the habitat. If you come across a spotted salamander with asymmetrical spots, that could indicate stressers in the environment.

Twan said that the redback salamander should be the most common species. There are concerns about the declining numbers of red back salamanders. “If you lose the red back salamander, you lose a whole layer of the food chain. They are critical to other animals in the same environment.”

Things that are threats to salamanders include:

  • garlic mustard, an invasive plant species that can change the soil chemistry, making the land less hospitable for salamanders.
  • warmer and drier climates: this results in fewer and in smaller salamanders.

What can we do to help ensure the survival of salamanders?

  • watch and monitor them. Vernal pools aren’t always successful. “The salamanders’ reproductive cycle is very hit or miss,” Twan said.
  • stop using pesticides on your lawn and encourage others to stop. These pesticides create a toxic environment for salamanders.
  • protect the vernal pools. Don’t mow anywhere near a vernal pool. The habitat around the vernal pool is critical for salamanders.
  • support your local amphibians. “It’s amazing and fascinating. The big night is in the middle of the night. Ideally, the temperature is 45 degrees and it is rainy. Enjoy the big night.  You can’t predict when exactly it will be. Just be ready for it. There are amazing things in your back yard,” Twan said.
  • support your land conservancy. The Western New York Land Conservancy  has 950 members. New members are welcome. The conservancy protects more than 9,000 acres on 80 properties throughout Western New York. For more information about the Western New York Land Conservancy, check out its website at: link to Western New York Land Conservancy

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