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The spotted salamanders commonly seen in New England and the eastern United States are glossy black with two rows of bright yellow spots down their backs and tails. They can crawl up to half a mile. One night every spring they leave their underground forest homes and migrate to wetland ponds to breed. Salamanders are famous for their energetic "love dance." The females' eggs hatch quickly into larvae, and the larvae develop into young adults that emerge from their ponds in summer or early fall to migrate back to the forest. Unlike many amphibians, adults have a high survival rate.
Every year after the first spring rains in Amherst, Massachusetts, volunteer "bucket brigades" used to stop traffic along Henry Street to carry migrating salamanders safely across the road.
That is, until the animals could cross on their own through two underpasses.
Two-lane Henry Street separates salamanders from the warm, fishless vernal pools (small temporary ponds) where they migrate every spring to mate and to lay their eggs. "Local residents knew when the salamanders would head for the pools," says wildlife biologist and consultant Tom Tyning. "They knew the prime conditions for migration - sustained rain, the beginning of a thaw, and temperatures above 42 degrees."
Those who came out to watch the nighttime migration noticed salamanders killed on the road. When word spread about the animals' plight, the British Fauna and Floral Preservation Society and ACO Polymer in Germany provided funds for an experimental tunnel project on Henry Street. The Amherst Department of Public Works, University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Hitchcock Center for the Environment (a local conservation group), and local residents worked together to make it happen.
In 1987 two tunnels, 200 feet (61 m) apart, were built at the salamanders' crossing site, and short "drift fences" were constructed to guide migrating salamanders into the tunnels. Each tunnel had a slotted top to let in light and provide the damp conditions salamanders need.
To study the effectiveness of the project, volunteers caught salamanders as they approached the tunnels and marked each one with a colored paper dot representing the section of fence from which they had come. "We wanted to be sure the length of the fence didn't interfere with the salamanders' movement into the tunnels," says Scott Jackson, University of Massachusetts amphibian and reptile expert. "If it did, the two tunnels would need to be closer."
Study results indicated that salamanders at fences farthest from the tunnels were just as successful in reaching the tunnels as those at fences closer to the entrances. The study also revealed that more than three quarters of the animals that reached the tunnels successfully used them to cross the road.
Jackson offers these tips to those who may be considering salamander tunnels in their communities: