It's dark. It's cold. It's spitting a light mix of rain, sleet, and snow that finds its way down the back of my raincoat and past two layers of fleece.
It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s spitting a light mix of rain, sleet, and snow that finds its way down the back of my raincoat and past two layers of fleece. Somewhere in the hardwood forests of the Piedmont, I slosh through knee-deep water, the muck sucking at my boots. I shiver from the cold sweat of hiking, but I can’t complain. I came here willingly, and I couldn’t be happier. The salamander migration is on.
Yup. You heard me. Out of sight and mind are the so-called “mole” salamanders that live underground for nearly 50 weeks a year, only to emerge and migrate en masse to small breeding pools. If you’re in the woods on the first warm, rainy night of late winter and hear the sound of thundering feet, it may not be your imagination. (Although you’d have to have superhero hearing.) Look around. Salamanders on the move might not be as awe-inspiring as, say, wildebeest pounding across the African plains. But a couple dozen squiggling salamanders is still an impressive sight. And occasionally, when the warming ground and the falling rain are just perfect — to an amphibian, at least — so many salamanders, frogs, and toads hit the trail that fans dub events like these a Big Night.
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This might not be a full-blown big night, but it’s a Pretty Good Night, for sure. It was a half-mile hike through the dark woods to reach this vernal pool, a jaunt made easier by the spring peepers peeping — a handy homing signal. I sweep my headlamp like a lightsaber from Star Wars to make sure I’m not about to stomp an amphibian’s love nest, then ease into the pool in hip boots. It’s incredible how much life comes out in the dark. I see whirligigs zipping around on top of the water, and fairy shrimp and dragonfly larvae scuttling around the leaves. I have a staring contest with a large crawfish, its nocturnal hunt suspended while it waves a claw back and forth, daring me to try to pick it up.
Our state is a hub of salamander diversity, home to more than 60 species. Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians have the greatest salamander diversity on earth. Salamanders from the genus Ambystoma are the ones I’m looking for, in particular the spotted and tiger salamanders that saddle up and ride on a wet late winter’s night. The rain keeps their fragile skins from drying out while they thunder — sort of — through the woods. And while it’s possible to spot these creatures around creeks and permanent lakes, what they really want is temporary housing. Low spots on the forest floor fill with snowmelt and rainwater to create ephemeral pools that last but a few months. Also called “vernal pools,” they are void of fish and other things that might make a meal out of salamander eggs. Or salamander adults, for that matter.
At first, all I spot are the long strings of toad eggs — frogs and toads like vernal pools for all the reasons salamanders do — but soon enough, I see a baseball-size jellied mass with scores of black dots suspended in the center. Salamander eggs! I knew they had to be here. Then my light falls on the front half of a sausage-shaped salamander, its midnight-black body buttered with bright yellow spots. I sweep my light and find more spotted salamanders. Two here, three there, a half-dozen more all balled up together.
Once the migrating amphibians make it to a wooded pool, the salamanders writhe in the shallow waters, rubbing and nudging one another in a courtship dance that can last up to several minutes. I feel vaguely voyeuristic barging in on the nuptials.
The salamanders will hang around for several days, then leave the water to lope — in a salamandery fashion — back to their hidden burrows on higher, drier ground. It can be a dangerous journey, both going and coming. It’s not easy being a seven-inch-long nomad these days. More and more roads are cutting through old woods, and crossing them to get to an ancestral breeding pool on the other side is fraught with four-wheeled danger. And it doesn’t take a strip of asphalt to turn away a galloping Ambystomatid. Forested wetlands tend to get ditched and drained, or plowed or planted with houses. Fact is, migrating salamanders, plus frogs and toads that breed around the same time, manifest a great faith that breeding pools from previous years are still around.
That’s why it’s a good idea this time of year to take it easy if you’re on a rural road, especially on wet, rainy nights.
And don’t be afraid to pull over and pitch in. Ambystomatid salamanders are perfectly harmless, and they wouldn’t mind a helping hand — or bucket — in getting safely across the road. The same with the frogs and toads that are hot-footing it to breeding ponds about now.
You might even follow their lead, literally. Walk downhill to the closest pool or puddle in the woods. Shine a light along its edges. If you’re just a little bit lucky, you’ll witness one of the most unsung wonders of the natural world.
Just try not to blush.