Walk like an amphibian: The spotted salamander gets a little help from friends

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Approximately 50 percent of the local spotted salamanders are killed by traffic on Rio Mills and Polo Grounds roads during migration. Photo by Devin Floyd Approximately 50 percent of the local spotted salamanders are killed by traffic on Rio Mills and Polo Grounds roads during migration. Photo by Devin Floyd

When the time is right, they crawl.

Once a year, over the span of a couple warm, wet nights, a local population of more than 1,000 spotted salamanders makes the 100-yard trek from their forested homes to their vernal pool breeding grounds, crossing Rio Mills and Polo Grounds roads. Though they can grow to be about 8 inches long, the salamanders often go unnoticed by drivers in the middle of night and have a fatal encounter.

“It’s quite a mess on migration night,” says Devin Floyd, founder of the Center for Urban Habitats and Blue Ridge Discovery Center in Charlottesville. “The mortality rate is close to 50 percent, or half of them each time.”

Donning headlamps and with their vehicles parked along the road, Floyd and a small group of volunteers take to the Route 29 site each year to perform a “salamander rescue night,” during which they carry the critters across the road and talk with any amused or confused drivers who are interrupted by the group’s samaritanship.

“You shine your flashlight in the puddles on the forest side,” Floyd says. “And if you see one, you grab it, run across the road and put it down on the other side.” This year, the first night of migration came between 2 and 4am on February 8. With few cars out at that time of night, Floyd was happy to report only one observed casualty by the time his salamander senses were tingling and he went to check on the site the following morning.

But the largest success for spotted salamander fans? A proposed underpass system that would allow the polka-dotted amphibians to migrate under the roads safely. A 40-foot apron at the entrance to the tunnels would guide the salamanders along the path to safety.

Floyd describes the tunnels, of which there would be three on each side, as 12-inch-wide, 15- to 20-foot-long chutes that would, he hopes, have a slotted grate on top to allow for moisture. The underpasses would be big enough to also allow small mammals, such as possums and raccoons, to pass safely.

This project is being proposed by Alan Taylor, the president of Riverbend Development, which will build the Brookhill subdivision on the corner of Route 29 and Polo Grounds Road right by the salamander habitat. Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.

Calling the underpass proposal a “moral imperative,” Ann Mallek, a member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors who is a frequent salamander rescuer, says, “Alan Taylor deserves a lot of credit for seeing that this is a need.”

She encourages people to visit the breeding sites and peek into the vernal pools during the daytime in the spring when the egg clusters and larvae will be visible.

As for the need to connect with critters, says Floyd, “Having animals as part of our life is an important thing to a lot of people. What that really means is figuring out a way to live with them when we design and when we build things.”

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