By SARAH CROWE
On the night of the first warm spring rain, local salamanders emerge from the thawed forest ground to migrate. Because of passing cars, however, many of them are killed before reaching their destination.
Cornell students Catherine Li ’18, Caroline Wollman ’18 and Abigail Shilvock ’17 are working with Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Plantations, to protect salamanders and other amphibians from human intrusions in the Plantations and its related reserves.
The three students are members of Biology Service Leaders, a group on campus that organizes teams of students that want to relate their science education with giving back to their community, according to Li.
“We were looking for a way to transform our education into service — Biology Service Leaders adds something more to that, because you have to develop your own project,” Li said.
The students chose a project centered at Ringwood Ponds in Dryden, one of Cornell Plantations’ 24 off-campus reserves. The site includes over a dozen ephemeral ponds, which are filled with water for only part of the year and are vital for amphibian reproduction because of the absence of fish predators.
“Ringwood Ponds is arguably Tompkins County’s most important amphibian site,” Bittner said.
Among the amphibians living at the site are several species of salamanders, including the Jefferson salamander and four-toed salamander. These two species are included on the New York State Department of Conservation Wildlife Action Plan, a list that identifies species that are at risk of becoming endangered.
Salamanders spend their winters burrowed into forest soils, but when the ground first thaws in the spring, they migrate to ephemeral ponds to reproduce. This creates a problem at Ringwood, which is bisected by a busy road that the salamanders have to cross twice a year. According to Bittner, passing cars kill hundreds of salamanders during each migration.
“It’s just not good for their population because every time they cross, there’s going to be a percentage that are killed, and they’re not all that abundant to begin with,” Shilvock said.
According to Bittner, a system has been in place since the early 2000s to help guide the salamanders and other amphibians underneath the road rather than over it. The system consists of a long, curved fence that leads the salamanders to an underground tunnel called a culvert. While the culvert does not stop all of the salamanders from crossing the road, it provides a safe route to the ponds for some.
Last April, a wildfire that Bittner says was presumably started by humans burned five acres of forest at Ringwood and obliterated large sections of the fence. One of the student’s project goals is to fix the fence in time for the next salamander migration. They also intend to install a light inside the culvert, because the amphibians usually migrate by moonlight.
These students in Bittner’s group are not the only Cornellians who work to preserve these salamander species at Ringwood.
“Some people are really dedicated to this issue, like the Herpetological Society, they actually go out there during the migration and pick salamanders off the road and put them on the other side,” Li said. “And they do that several nights in a row.”
While actively assisting the salamander migrations is helpful, the students say that the most important thing that members of the community can do is to simply be aware of the problem.
“If you know you’re living or driving in an area where this migration is happening, especially in the springtime when it’s starting to warm up, just be cognizant of it or possibly take a different way home,” Wollman said.
Although the migrations are dangerous for the salamanders, they are the only times people get a chance to see them. The salamanders are nocturnal and spend most of their time under rocks or leaves on forest floors.
“The migrations provide a great opportunity to get to see some of the interesting species of our region that otherwise you wouldn’t ever get to see,” Bittner said.