Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

Joe Barron '17 holds a spotted salamander at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course.

March 13, 2017

The Salamander Pilgrimage

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Thousands of salamanders emerged from the woods of Tompkins County over the last few weeks and crawled to vernal ponds to reproduce.

The salamander pilgrimage — often only a crawl of about a few hundred yards — is an annual event to procreate, said Prof. Kelly Zamudio, ecology and evolutionary biology.

The two species of salamanders in this area — the Jefferson salamander and the spotted salamander — are “explosive breeders,” Zamudio said, meaning they all come out of the woods within a few weeks to reproduce.

“There’s a lot of fidelity,” Zamudio said. “Once an adult finds a woodlot [a small area of forest] to live in — and that’s where home is in the summer — they tend to go back to the same pond.”

Joe Barron ’17 and Jenn Guerrero ’18, social media chair and vice president of the Cornell Herpetological Society, respectively, brought a photographer and reporter from The Sun on a nighttime salamander search at Cornell’s Robert Trent Jones golf course recently.

“I know more about salamanders than any reasonable person should know,” Barron said as he parked his Subaru on the edge of Bluegrass Lane and donned waders and a headlamp.

After wading through stinky pools and thorny thickets, Barron pierced the water with his hands and gently cradled a Jefferson salamander in his hands.

Some local salamanders can live for up to 25 years, Zamudio said, which can be determined by the salamanders’ length. Most of those seen at the golf course were slightly longer than the length of one’s hand.

Barron explained the breeding process as he held a wet leaf in the dark and pointed to several tiny, white globs.

The globs, attached to the leaf, are spermatophore — packets of sperm placed onto vegetation by male salamanders. After a male squirms around near a female salamander — “dances,” Barron said — they deposit spermatophore onto vegetation for the female salamander, who places her cloaca onto the sperm packet.

The warm February this year — up to 73 degrees at one point — led to the state Department of Environmental Conservation issuing a notice that salamanders may emerge from the grounds especially early.

“With this week’s unseasonably warm temperatures and the rainy weekend forecast, the 2017 migration may have an unusually early start,” the DEC said in a statement in February.

The salamanders near Cornell began their migration around Feb. 28 this year, which is highly unusual, Zamudio said, adding that she could not recall such an early migration since the early 2000s. Sometimes the salamanders do not make the trek to water until late March or early April.

“It does seem like we’ve had this consistent change in climate,” Zamudio said, noting the back-and-forth of the weather this year. “It’s not consistently warm enough or raining so [the salamanders] come out in these little spurts instead of big pulses.”

Zamudio said any change to the environment can have a large effect on the amphibians’ life cycles.

“This is part of our local fauna and it’s been living like this for 20 million years,” she said. “In that so many million years, there’s been quite a lot of environmental change, but it’s never been this fast and it’s never been in the direction of complete extremes.”

If climate change creates more extreme weather conditions, Zamudio said, ice could reach salamanders’ eggs and kill the embryos. Another possibility is that extreme cold late in the spring could kill a number of adult salamanders and their eggs.

Zamudio warned that it is not yet clear that those events will happen any time soon, but, she said, “that’s where the danger lies.”