Salamander migrations are annual events that happen within a very short time frame every year. Salamanders are cued to specific temperature, humidity, air pressure and light conditions which signal to them that it is safe to travel. This typically occurs on the first rainy night above 45°F in the late winter or early spring. Although the salamander migration often occurs on one big night, this year’s inconsistent weather led to a series of smaller salamander movements that were staggered across a few weeks.
Salamanders belong to the group of animals called amphibians, which all share the ability to breathe through their skin. For this reason their skin must remain damp at all times, which is why rainy conditions are necessary for any long-range movement across land.
When salamanders migrate, they are moving away from their overwintering spots in wooded upland areas to vernal pools in lowland areas and depressions. Vernal pools are temporary pools created by spring rain and snow melt that dry up by mid-summer. Predators like fish and turtles cannot live in vernal pools, and so they are a strategic habitat for salamanders to breed and lay their eggs.
Once they have arrived at the vernal pool, male salamanders perform courtship dances to attract mates. Once they have paired off, the males deposit sperm packets on the twigs and leaf litter in the pond, which the females pick up and use to fertilize their eggs, which are laid underwater in groups of 100-300. On the next warm, wet night the adults will relocate to their summer habitats – usually a cozy spot underneath a rock or log.
Salamanders are extremely vulnerable during migration events, especially when their routes require them to cross roads. Many State Parks organize volunteer groups to meet on these special nights to act as amphibian crossing-guards. A few weeks ago, some friends and I took a slow night drive on the county roads near Thacher State Park in Albany County to see if we could help any salamanders on their journey. We saw plenty of salamanders, and frogs, too!
featured image is a spotted salamander. Photos and post by Paris Harper