After a careful read I am certain that Gov. Mills’ stay at home order does not apply to amphibians. A good thing, too, because they wouldn’t abide. It’s springtime, and that means time to mate, global coronavirus pandemic or not.
Amphibians are, in fact, enduring a global pandemic of their own (Google “chytrid fungus” if you’re somehow looking for more depressing news), but even that won’t stop them from finding each other during the first warm, wet nights of spring. When the conditions are right, hundreds of thousands of frogs and salamanders begin a “big night,” trekking from their winter hiding places to vernal pools quickly filling with other amorous amphibians.
These creatures can sense the correct circumstances. The overnight temperatures need to crack the 40s, and the sound of falling rain lets the amphibians know that vernal pools are probably forming. Then it’s time to go.
Thousands of amphibians — four-toed, spotted, and blue-spotted salamanders; wood frogs; spring peepers; American toads and others — begin to walk (or hop) toward the same vernal pools they were born in. Vernal pools are temporary habitats, which means that they’re generally free of predators like fish who would feast on amphibian eggs and young. Once the adults make it back to their pool, they engage in a variety of mating behaviors before leaving eggs in the water to hatch.
But as the saying goes, it’s more about the journey than the destination. For a small amphibian, the path to its particular vernal pool may lead it through yards, down and up ditches, around buildings and, most dangerously, across roads. The window for big nights in late March and April can result in a huge amount of roadkill for these small, slow-moving animals. Thankfully, we can help.
Those warm spring nights also stir certain humans to action. Volunteers with Maine Audubon or with the Maine Amphibian Migration Monitoring Facebook group head out after dark, scanning roadways for moving amphibians and then ensuring a safe crossing. On the right nights and in the right locations, past volunteers have reported finding hundreds of individuals on the move.
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The best way to ensure success is to get yourself near a vernal pool. To find one, find the State of Maine’s Beginning with Habitat maps online. Find the “Plant and Animal Habitats” map builder and ensure the “Significant Vernal Pools” layer is turned on, then search around your town or location. The blue dots will point you in the right direction.
If there is a nearby pool, first check these Three Steps for Mainers guidelines for enjoying the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then throw your boots on, give the kids some flashlights (and a safety talk) and head out after dark to search for amphibians and help them cross roads in the direction of their pool. If you can’t safely go out at night, early morning is still a good time to look for amphibians, or for egg masses of wood frogs in small pools.
With amphibian populations crashing worldwide due in large part to both a fungal pandemic and the loss of vernal pool habitat, your actions go a long way towards helping these vulnerable Maine critters. In this time of human pandemic, perhaps we can extend some understanding and sympathy to our amphibian neighbors and offer something we’re all looking for right now: a helping hand.
A birder and writer, Nick Lund is the outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon, a statewide organization that works to conserve Maine’s wildlife and wildlife habitat by engaging people in education, conservation and action.