On damp nights in early spring, after the ground has thawed, thousands of salamanders and frogs emerge from their winter slumber in Maine to crawl and hop across the land. If you time it just right, you can witness this natural phenomenon.
In fact, researchers wish you would.
This mass migration — known as Maine’s Big Night — occurs in April, and researchers are looking for volunteers to track the movement of these amphibians and help protect them from harm. The community science project, launched in 2018, is called Maine Big Night: Amphibian Migration Monitoring.
“There’s nothing that will strike joy in your heart like seeing your first spotted salamander,” said Gregory LeClair, coordinator of Maine’s Big Night project. “That [salamander] along with the wood frog and spring peeper are the three most common amphibians people see during the event.”
Other amphibians, such as the blue-spotted salamander, eastern red-backed salamander and wood frog, have also been seen on the move during the big springtime migration.
Amphibians on the move
During the winter, many of Maine’s amphibians take shelter in the forest under leaf litter and duff. With adaptations to weather the cold, they remain dormant for months as snow piles up and the world freezes around them. Then — sometime in April — they wake.
In the spring, the instinctive priority of an amphibian is to find a suitable spot to mate and deposit eggs. But this requires a bit of a trek from their wintering sites to nearby vernal pools or other types of wetlands. To travel, they wait until optimal conditions. This makes the movement predictable.
“It usually breaks up into a couple of nights,” said LeClair. “As long as the ground is thawed, it’s raining and it’s 45 degrees Fahrenheit at night, then you’ll have amphibians moving.”
The most movement typically happens around April 20, plus or minus three days, LeClair said. However, last year, it occurred a little earlier, on April 15.
As amphibians and salamanders move across the landscape to reach wetlands, they often cross roadways, which results in many of them being crushed by vehicles. Therefore, in addition to collecting data about amphibian populations and habitats, the Big Night project is designed to bring awareness to this problem. And volunteers are asked to help amphibians cross roadways by picking them up — as long as there’s no traffic.
In 2020, the project recorded a nearly 50 percent reduction in amphibian road mortality due to COVID-related shutdowns. But with road traffic approaching normal levels again, LeClair doesn’t expect the trend to continue for this spring.
How to sign up for Maine’s Big Night
For the project, volunteers adopt sections of roads throughout Maine that have been identified as hotspots for amphibian migration on the Big Night. With new sites being added every year, the project offers 310 locations statewide for volunteers to choose from.
By adopting a site for the Big Night, a volunteer commits to surveying that road segment for at least 1 hour during the month of April.
Surveying involves identifying and counting amphibians and recording information about conditions, such as weather. In addition, volunteers are expected to safely assist amphibians across the road so they don’t get run over by vehicles. This entails picking them up and shuttling them to the side of the road where they were headed.
If you can’t find an available site in your area, then you can ask to share a site with the person who’s already signed up for it, LeClair said. Or you could scout out your own site, looking for roadways near marshes and vernal pools, places where people have seen amphibians cross in the past. Once you’ve found a potential site, ask LeClair to add the site to the project.
“There are certainly many more sites out there I’m not aware of yet,” LeClair said. ”We find new sites by looking at satellite images [for wetlands] and we take data from iNaturalist.”
To officially adopt a site, volunteers must first complete read the volunteer scientist manual and pass an associated (open book) quiz with at least 80 percent correct. They must also sign a safety and liability waiver.
For those interested in learning about the project directly from a person, optional training is available via Zoom at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 12, and at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 20. Event details are posted on the “Maine Big Night – Amphibian Migration Monitoring” Facebook group.
How volunteers save amphibians and contribute to research
Enlisting everyday people to participate in Maine’s Big Night project helps biologists cover more ground and collect an abundance of data in a short span of time, said LeClair. It’s also an opportunity for the public to witness a wildlife-related issue firsthand — and do something about it.
“Amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate group on the planet,” LeClair said. “We’re losing species left and right, mostly due to disease and climate change.”
Because this project involves walking along a road late at night, safety is of utmost importance, and it’s a big part of the manual that all volunteers must read. Volunteers are required to wear high visibility vests and headlamps, and they cannot enter the roadway if a vehicle is passing. In addition, project coordinators have notified local police stations of the site locations so there’s no confusion about why people are walking along roadways all over Maine during warm April nights.
“We’ve had a few police officers pitch in to catch frogs and salamanders,” LeClair said. “Without safety, the project wouldn’t happen. If I find out people aren’t being safe, I will consider dropping that data from the analysis because I don’t want the project to be using data collected unethically.”
Anyone can participate, though you need to be 18 years or older to be in charge of collecting data. In fact, project organizers have pinpointed amphibian migration sites that are more family friendly, away from busy traffic, so children (if watched by an adult in a 1-to-1 ratio) can take part.
“We really do want as many kids as possible to join,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun when you get the family involved.”
This phenomenon isn’t unique to Maine. Researchers coordinate Big Night projects all over the Northeast, LeClair said.
Since the project began in Maine in 2018, more than 2,000 amphibians have been recorded. He hopes the project will only grow, providing researchers with valuable information about Maine’s amphibians and their movements across the landscape. The project’s leaders hope that the data can be used to help plan smarter road construction in the future.