(Photo - Elizabeth Harper)
Spotted salamanders, like this one, make annual spring migrations to breed. During this period, they can often be found in small, temporary pools.
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PAUL SMITHS — In Amherst, Mass., the spring migration of the spotted salamander is a celebrated event.

“Some places make a giant thing of it,” said Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager. “There’s a band called Salamander Crossing in Massachusetts. They are named after this place in Massachusetts where the whole community gets into this, and they actually put up signs to warn drivers that this is the place where the salamanders cross.”

Here in the northern Adirondacks, the activities surrounding this migration are more subtle, although no less important. Naturalist groups go and observe them; students and professors from Paul Smith’s College go out to Keese Mills Road and give the salamanders hand escorts across the pavement; and, of course, the predatory birds and animals lurk near, waiting for the opportunity to prey on the amphibians.

“It’s a big event,” Stager said. “It’s not just the salamanders. It’s us looking at them. It’s things eating them.”

Why is it such a big deal to see spotted salamanders, one might ask? Because these particular salamanders spend most of their lifetimes underground, living in places such as mammal burrowing holes, under leaf litter and in rotten logs.

But during this one short window of a few days in mid- to late April, they come above ground, and they do it en masse.

“If something is common, we tend to not get that excited about it,” said naturalist author Ed Kanze, a Bloomingdale resident, has watched their migrations for 30 years. “But as soon as something becomes rare or elusive, then it really peaks our curiosity.”

For the salamanders, the importance (and purpose) of this migration is much more basic. These amphibians — which are about six inches long with dark bodies and yellow spots — are seeking to reproduce. In order to do this, the salamanders leave their underground homes and head to bodies of water, often shallow temporary ponds.

In order to make this migration, a number of conditions are necessary, including a ground thaw and open water.

Once these conditions have occurred, the salamanders will make a nighttime migration during the first warm rain.

“It’s a rite of spring,” Stager said. “There’s no faking it. When those guys come out, winter’s over.”

During these few nights, the spotted salamanders come in droves, sometimes in the hundreds, as they make their way across meadows, forests and even roads to find those special pools.

In the ponds, the males and females don’t engage in intercourse like mammals. Instead, the males will drop dozens of sperm packets, one which will be picked up by a female to fertilize her eggs.

But there is some interaction between the sexes, including some flirting, as the males pursue the females.

“They swim this kind of a sinuous dance with the females, intertwining as they swim along,” Kanze said. “It’s neat to watch.”

One distinction that careful observers of the migration often note is that males will go into the pools first and stay longer, while females arrive later and leave sooner.

“With the females, it’s brief,” said David Patrick, director of the Center for Adirondack Biodiversity at Paul Smith’s College. “They have one night where a lot of females are coming in, then two days later when it rains, you have a lot of females coming right back out again.”

During these times when the salamanders are moving in large numbers, they are at risk to predators and automobiles. One of their biggest enemies during these migrations are motor vehicles. A single car or truck driving down a roadway can squash dozens of salamanders trying to cross the roads, and the cumulative effect of this is significant.

“The specialists who study amphibians say that, apart from other things such as diseases, acid rain and pollution, one of the major (causes of mortality) is roads,” Stager said.

For that reason, small groups of people will go out to the roadsides during the first warm nights of spring, looking to help these small amphibians across the road, with buckets or their hands. For them, it’s a rare occasion to see a spotted salamander, and it’s a time to celebrate, no matter how subtly.

“They are pretty hard to find. As mole salamanders, they’re down in a hole most of the time,” Kanze said. “There’s just a couple of nights a year when you go out, and there they are in hordes. Then you have to wait 365 days to do it again.”