Every March, just after the first warm rain, hundreds of salamanders begin to appear from their underground, subterranean habitats underneath logs and leaf litter, in search of water, signifying the arrival of spring.
In Tompkins County, two different types of salamanders migrate around this time –– the Ambystoma Jeffersonianum and the Ambystoma maculatum.
Ambystoma Jeffersonianum, commonly known as Jefferson salamanders, are dark-blue gray and can be found in early March. Ambystoma maculatum, commonly known as Spotted Salamanders, are chunky and dark gray with bright yellow spots and can be found starting in the middle of March.
The warmer weather and rain helps form temporary bodies of water, known as vernal pools. As the salamanders begin to leave their underground hibernation in nearby forests, they seek out these vernal pools in order to mate and lay eggs. After laying eggs, adult salamanders will return underground until the following year.
Salamanders are important ecological indicators because they are sensitive to environmental fluctuations, such as runoff from pollutants. These species give ecologists an idea of the ecosystem’s health.
“One of the biggest problems salamanders face while migrating is traffic. Salamanders are still susceptible to climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. Pushing for environmentally sound policies is important for salamanders and many other creatures.” Nathan Laurenz’22, treasurer of the Herpetological Society, said.
The Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates has data of when these events have occurred historically and can use this information to see how species’ ranges evolve over time.
“By using the power of natural history collections, we can look at how species ranges are changing. It’s a multifaceted approach to understanding the biology of the organisms,” Casey Dillman, curator of fishes and herpetology at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, said.
The Cornell Herpetological Society goes out every year to document this event. Late at night, you can spot a hoard of students with headlamps and flashlights scouring the grounds of Bluegrass Lane near the golf courses.
“It’s really stunning to see all the salamanders and a great way to introduce people to the native amphibians around Ithaca.” Laurenz said.
Students are encouraged to come any spring night to see the spectacle. “If you’ve never seen salamanders migrate, it’s quite a remarkable sight. They’re such beautiful organisms, and you don’t see them very often. But this is an easy time of year to actually get out and see them.” Dillman said.
It is not recommended to handle salamanders when not needed, but if one needs to be moved out of harm’s way, their hands should be wet. Salamanders breathe through their skin, so dry or oily hands can affect them negatively by removing the mucous layer on their skin.
“It’s never a good idea to handle wild animals unnecessarily, and I would advise against it unless directly assisting a road crossing. If you do handle them make sure to wash your hands before and after the encounter,” Laurenz said.
This week marks the start of warmer temperatures in Ithaca, followed by rain this weekend, a welcoming environment for salamanders.
Everyone should keep an eye out for shiny things crawling across roads –– they may be a salamander.
“They’re a really cool aspect of biodiversity and another indicator that spring is coming.” Dillman said.
Salamander migration season serves as an important reminder for the public to become involved and knowledgeable about ecological events happening in their community.