Ellie Coombs, 9, of Bridgton reached out to touch the injured redback salamander wriggling in the road, its tail mostly detached and moving separately from its body.
“I like the designs on salamanders. And I got to touch it,” she said.
The three-inch salamander had shed part of its tail, a life-saving response to a predator, and soon would regrow a new one.
Coombs was among 16 people led by Lakes Environmental Association educator Mary Jewett down Dugway Road in Bridgton the night of April 25. Walking side by side, flashlights trained on the road, their goal was to spot and safely escort salamanders and frogs fresh from winter hibernation in the woods across the street to find food or a mate in a vernal, or temporary, pool.
At 50 degrees, the darkness and steady rain provided the ideal ambience for the spring event, known as “Big Night,” when the amphibians come to life in great numbers. It’s a misnomer, because the creatures come out on any day with decent rainfall when temperatures reach into the 40s during early spring.
During that time, they’re vulnerable to birds, muskrats and other predators. But passing cars are just as dangerous.
“Amphibians are one of the fastest-declining species on earth,” Jewett said. Some scientists attribute the declines, noted since the 1980s, to disease and climate change.
“They are an important part of the food chain,” Jewett said. “They eat mosquitoes.”
They also provide food to bears, raccoons and other animals.
Jewett thinks even small efforts, like those of the group she lead that night, can help save the amphibians’ lives, by getting them out of the road to safety in the nearby woods and water. After all, none cross the road speedily, and some seem to lounge in puddles in the road.
“They need our help,” Jewett said before the group assembled.
Conservation organizations hold other Big Night events throughout the state, including through the Unity College Herpetology Club and the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick.
Some of the creatures, including the redback salamanders, were just out for a snack. But others, such as the spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers, were headed to the vernal pools, where they mate and leave their eggs to hatch. Their hatchlings come out in late summer and cross back over the road into the forest to begin a new annual cycle.
The vernal pools are usually temporary ponds that appear after the spring melt, though some stay through the fall before freezing or disappearing over the winter. The one on Dugway Road was about five feet deep.
There are thousands of vernal pools in New England, and they play a critical role in the ecosystem. In 2007 under the Natural Resources Protection Act, certain vernal pools in Maine were protected for the value of the species that mate in them and the numbers of hatchlings they produce.
The LEA has run the Big Night event for nine years. Education is another important component, Jewett said. People get a chance to see spotted salamanders, which spend nine months out of the year hidden under rocks or brush. Plus they can better understand the cycles of nature. The group also counts dead animals, which Jewett said are quickly gobbled up by predators, leaving the road clean in the morning.
On that night, the group helped 15 spotted salamanders cross the road, and saw three that didn’t make it. Only four dead wood frogs were seen, though live ones clucked loudly like chickens from the woods. The wood frogs are unusual, Jewett said, because they are essentially frozen during the winter and then defrost in the spring to mate. The male is much smaller than the female and mounts her back to fertilize her eggs, which she then leaves in the vernal pool to grow.
Tiny spring peepers were out in force, singing in their shrill voices, with 25 live ones helped across the road. They are known not only for their song, but for the prominent “X” mark across their backs.
Eight live redback salamanders, including the injured one, rounded out the night’s findings.
Overall it was a good night for spotting and helping amphibians, Jewett said. But some nights, when she’s out alone, she has seen a virtual stampede across the road.
“Sometimes I see more than 100 animals,” she said.
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