Chaperones to an Amphibian Dance


Chaperones to an Amphibian Dance

New York Times
Published: April 2, 2009

He moved tentatively off the mulchy shoulder of the road, the first to emerge from the wooded hillside as darkness fell and coyotes howled in the distance, craning his neck as he prepared to make the most perilous journey of his life. He seemed startled to find a taller creature standing before him on the rain-slicked asphalt, freezing him for an instant in a flashlight beam.

"We got one," Kris Schantz said, and then she stepped aside to let the night's pioneer spotted salamander continue on his annual spring migration in a rural section of Warren County. He was heading for the vernal pool on the other side of the road where he was born, and where his instinct told him his offspring should be born.
In these worrisome times, everybody could use a little help getting across the hard roads of life, and 10 people had come out in the chill rain on this night to help a slow parade of amphibians cross the hardest road of theirs.
"There's a wood frog over here!" one of the other volunteers called.
"Toad!" called another.
"Salamander!" called a third.

They stood at wide intervals along the double-yellow line, their headlamps making them look like a team of miners filing toward a coal seam. Sweeping their flashlights back and forth across the road, which had been closed for the night in deference to the amphibians, they each patrolled a 15-meter stretch bounded by squat orange cones and recorded on a clipboard what they saw.

"It's just magic," said Tom Koven, 64, a retired sea captain from Bethlehem Township, who counted two more salamanders as he patrolled the westernmost segment, the opposite end from Ms. Schantz's. "It's like ?Midsummer Night's Dream.' All the sudden they're just everywhere, crawling along - the salamanders do a dance, the frogs do their singing. It's something that goes on below everybody's realization of what's going on all around, this whole intricate dance of life, and you just wonder how many other things are going on like that."

Among the most charming, and vulnerable, rites of spring is the annual migration of amphibians from their winter residences - the snug burrows where they have been hibernating beneath the leaf litter of autumn - to the shallow pools where they breed. Most migrations proceed unseen, deep in untrafficked swaths of open land. But some amphibians in this densely settled state are unlucky enough to have a road standing between them and their goal. Evolution has taught them how to find their way back to their natal pools, but it hasn't yet equipped them to deal with the implications of the internal combustion engine.
At the wrong moment during the migration's peak, "one car can wipe out like 50 percent of them just in one passing," said Ms. Schantz, a biologist with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program in the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

And so she and the volunteers watched protectively over a crossing whose location they would reveal only to those who swore to keep it secret. For the second year in a row, they were shielding the amphibians from those who would come to capture them to keep or to sell as pets, as well as from those who would come simply to watch, but whose cars and feet might turn the amphibians to smudges on the road.

The amphibians start moving on the first rainy nights in March when the temperature rises above freezing. If the rain is heavy, all the amphibians in a certain neighborhood may move at once, hundreds at a time, a migration of biblical scale. If rain is sparse and intermittent, as it was this March, so too is the migration. Volunteers start driving slowly along back roads when the evenings grow damp and warm, looking for shiny little creatures on the shoulders.

"You literally wait all year for one night in the rain," said Mike Anderson, a sanctuary director in Bernardsville for the New Jersey Audubon Society, which has been working with the state and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey to monitor the amphibians' road crossings, and find ways to improve their odds. (Amphibian populations are declining worldwide, though there are no statistics to show by precisely how much here in New Jersey.) More road closings - this is one of only a handful in the state - would help, as would culverts that offer a safer passage beneath the roads.

The volunteers had been out on this road on a Sunday night several weeks earlier, when the rain was spotty, and so was the traffic of amphibians. Lightning forced an early shutdown, at 4:20 a.m., and when Ms. Schantz returned a few minutes later to collect the cones and barricades that had closed the road, she spotted dozens of salamanders and toads crossing, uncounted, in the heavy rain. On this night, the second and last survey this spring, the rain was slow and steady.

"Why kill something if you don't have to?" asked Charlie Fineran, a retired state police sergeant from Allamuchy who had spotted about 15 amphibians in his section, more than on that earlier Sunday, but fewer than on a rainier night last year. "I was out for two and half hours then, and I had 85."

A replacement shift arrived, and Mr. Anderson drove gingerly away. "That one's already flat," he said, pointing out the remnants of a salamander that had tried to cross beyond the blockaded zone, and the watchful eyes of the volunteers. Mr. Anderson inched and swerved along, doing his best not to add any others to the toll.

Township right to give critters the right of way
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The Express-Times

The clash between wildlife and human civilization has prompted several public policy debates in New Jersey. It has resulted in animal-only overpasses on Interstate 78. Some townships have put up "duck crossing" signs to give moms and broods a fighting chance to navigate traffic. Cape May is debating the "rights" of feral cats to dine on endangered water fowl. The on-again, off-again black bear hunt warms up passions like no other debate.

But the wood frog? The spotted salamander? The Jefferson salamander?
Chances are, most people know as much about amphibians as amphibians know about traffic laws. As a result, these critters tend to lose the battle when they emerge in early spring, seeking out vernal pools in which to deposit their eggs -- and have to cross a road. Environmental officials say up to 75 percent of them can be killed off at these times. Some, like the spotted salamander, are on the endangered list.
Happily, though, the annual trek of frogs and salamanders has become a rite of spring for people who enjoy going out at night with flashlights to witness it. The amphibians are predictable, coming out on the first rainy nights when the temperature stays above freezing.
One municipality, Independence Township, has taken the lead on behalf of wood frogs and salamanders and will close a stretch of Shades of Death Road on nights when hopping and skittering is the chief mode of transport. Mayor Bob Giordano says he doesn't expect the temporary inconvenience to be a big deal -- except to the four-leggers who will enjoy the right of way.
Not every town can close every road where endangered species wander, but who knows where this could lead? Around the world, the plight of sea turtles has led to people watching their egg-laying and safeguarding their nests. It's become a vital part of eco-tourism. Closer to home, Knowlton Township extols another species with its annual Beaver Day parade and celebration.
Flashlight, anyone?


Independence Twp. helps frogs get to the other side

Sunday, February 17, 2008 


The Express-Times



Mike Anderson still remembers the time he helped carry 437 frogs and salamanders across Shades of Death Road. But it wasn't enough. When he and the other "amphibian crossing guards" returned to the road an hour later, hundreds more had come down off the hills on the road's northern side.

They were all dead, crushed by car tires.

"It looked like a massacre," said Anderson, a wildlife sanctuary director with the New Jersey Audubon Society. "That will stay with me for a long time."

This March, Anderson and other volunteers will be back to help the area's wood frogs and spotted and Jefferson salamanders. They cross Shades of Death Road to get to vernal ponds on the other side to lay eggs. The crossing is habitual; whenever the first warm, rainy night happens in mid-March, the amphibians come out in force.

This year, Independence amphibians will be getting extra help in addition to their crossing guards. The township committee has agreed to close Shades of Death Road when the frogs and salamanders cross.

Mayor Bob Giordano said the committee had no reservations about closing the road.

"Not at all," he said. "Most of the people are environmentally conscious.

"If we keep the road open, because of the traffic, we could lose 70 to 75 percent of the amphibians."

In Montville Township, Morris County, cars essentially wiped out the local population of blue spotted salamanders, which are an endangered species, Anderson said.

"It's becoming more and more of a problem as traffic increases in New Jersey," he said. "In more rural parts of the state, we still have time left."

The state Division of Fish and Wildlife has been tracking the effects of vehicles on amphibian crossings since 2002. The results are in line with national results, which show vehicles have killed 50 to 100 percent of the species, Fish and Wildlife Senior Zoologist Kris Schantz said.

"Our research has shown that 52 to 71 percent of crossing amphibians were killed just in a two-hour period, not even overnight," she said.

Schantz and Anderson are hopeful other municipalities will follow Independence's lead and close their roads where amphibians cross to lay eggs. There are hundreds of known crossing spots in the state, but no other governing bodies have agreed to road closures, Schantz said.

"We really want to give Independence high accolades for being a leader," she said. "No citizen likes a road closure because it's very inconvenient."


Reporter Lynn Olanoff can be reached at 908-475-8044 or by e-mail at lolanoff@express-times.com.


Saving New Jersey's salamanders, frogs, toads

Associated Press Writer

March 14, 2007, 7:34 PM EDT

TRENTON, N.J. -- Squish. That's the sound that dozens of volunteers who are working to protect New Jersey's salamanders, frogs and toads do not like to hear.

For the last three years at this time in late winter, dozens of people from around the Garden State have been gathering to prevent carnage to the state's amphibian population.

When the conditions are right, in a process that occurs over just a few hours as if an unseen director has just yelled "Action!", many types of salamanders, toads and frogs come out of the woods or down from the hills and migrate en masse to ponds where they will then mate.

"It's one of the most amazing things you've ever seen, if you find migrating amphibians amazing," said Mike Anderson of the New Jersey Audubon Society, who clearly does.

The problem is that in the most densely populated state in the country amphibian migration often involves crossing roads and streets where a slow salamander can end up as roadkill.

So volunteers, organized by the Department of Environmental Protection in cooperation with environmental groups such as New Jersey Audubon, organize to help the little critters find love and fresh water.

The locations where volunteers gather are mostly in northwestern New Jersey, specifically Warren and Sussex counties, although migrations do happen in other areas of the state.

Conditions have to be perfect for the migration to occur _ conditions, that is, that slimy creatures with a fondness for moist places would consider perfect. It must be raining, the ground must be thawed out, the temperature must be between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun must be down, said Anderson.

At some sites, volunteers serve as crossing guards and physically pick up the amphibians and carry them to the other side of the road so they can continue their journey.

At other sites, volunteers count how many of the amphibians make it to the other side of the road _ and how many don't. At some locations, traffic during this mass migration is redirected during the time the amphibians are on the road.

Other volunteers go out to look for sites where frogs, toads and salamanders may be crossing so the site can be monitored the following year.

"Going out there at night and seeing these things run over, it's heartbreaking to witness," said Melissa Craddock, a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. "I like all wildlife. It's neat when you see a heavy-bodied salamander crossing the road ... and just knowing that you're helping it to survive."

Craddock, who helped start the Amphibian Crossing Survey, said the goal is to use the data collected to eventually figure out where it might be best to close roads or build culverts underneath so the amphibians can cross safely.

Saving amphibians isn't easy
Sunday, March 19, 2006
For the Star-Ledger

The life of a scientist can sometimes be troubling. Kris Schantz, a biologist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife's Endangered and Non-game Species Program (ENSP), spends her days working to protect and save New Jersey's beleaguered amphibians. But one night last week -- for the sake of science -- she stood by and watched as dozens of frogs, salamanders and newts were crushed beneath the tires of cars.

The squishing would have happened even if Schantz wasn't hanging out at Spring Valley Road in Warren County. In fact, it was happening on countless roads throughout the state as amphibians found the weather warm and wet enough last Sunday and Monday nights to venture out in search of mates.

Schantz, colleagues from ENSP and volunteers with the New Jersey Audubon Society, want to prevent the yearly carnage. One solution would be to elevate, by a foot to 18 inches, roads that pass between amphibian wintering areas and the critters' watery warm-weather habitats. En route to the beckoning wetlands each year, the animals could then safely hop, wiggle and scurry beneath the elevated roads.  It will take federal grant money to pay for these projects, and the United States Department of Transportation won't consider proposals unless
there's scientific documentation a problem exists.  Which brings us back to Schantz and her night of horror. Along with the Audubon Society members, she and fellow biologists chose three places to observe the annual amphibian trek from winter hideout to mating grounds. The set themselves up at Spring Valley Road, Shades of Death Road in Independence Township and Pinebrook Road in Lincoln Park.   In Independence and Lincoln Park, the biologists not only took counts, they also helped the animals cross. But, in an effort to gather the
required scientific data, they didn't interfere with the Spring Valley Road crossings. The findings were saddening to Schantz and her colleagues.

"From what we observed Monday, at least half, if not more, were killed," she said. "Fifty to 75 percent." Schantz noted that Spring Valley Road is a very rural route. Less than 30 cars passed during the 2-hour observation period. In more populated areas, such as Lincoln Park, it's likely that substantially more amphibian deaths occur. Schantz said about 100 cars
passed over Pinebrook Road each half-hour. Because of the traffic, it would be virtually impossible to even temporarily close roads like Pinebrook to save the frogs and their
friends. That's what the National Park Service does each year to save road-crossing amphibians on River Road, a lightly-traveled country route within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Park Service biologist Jeffrey Shreiner said the government has plans to build a tunnel beneath River Road so the creatures can pass safely each year. However, Schantz said there's a drawback to such tunnels: They are soon discovered by predators. "Culverts are a method people use because it's cheaper to do than building a raised roadway," she said. "Unfortunately, scavengers like raccoons and opossums realize these become passageways for the amphibians ... like little buffet tables. It's pretty crazy."

Speaking of scavengers, they're the reason people rarely see how many amphibians are killed each year by vehicles. Schantz said the little roadkills are quickly eaten by the scavengers, leaving few signs of the bloodbath that took place during the night.


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