“Grandpa,” said George, “why are we going out in the rain? In the DARK?”
“Well,” I said, “because tonight is Salamander Night, and we’re going out to see a whole bunch of huge salamanders crossing the road. Then we’ll go with them to the salamander dance at the frog pond. Did you ever see a salamander dance?”
George was eager to go.
“Great!” I said. “I see you brought your rain jacket and boots. I’ll grab mine and some duct tape, flashlights, and some pieces of red plastic; then we’ll drive out to the frog pond.”
Only a couple of hundred yards after we left for the frog pond, I pointed out a salamander that was flattened by a tire. I said, “Too bad it didn’t make it across the road.”
George asked, “Why did the salamander cross the road?”
“You’ll soon see,” I said. “You know, when I was your age, I used to like to go out to the frog pond near my grandpa’s. I would catch frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, and turtles. But not at night and not in the rain. That’s because, back then, I had no idea there was such a thing as a salamander night or a salamander dance. I didn’t know about this event until ten or twenty years ago. Now I like to go out to the frog pond even more than when I was a young boy.”
“Are we gonna catch frogs and salamanders?” asked George.
“Sure,” I said, “What we’ll do is catch a bunch and help them across the road. But you’ll see so many of them, you wouldn’t know what to do with them all. Besides, it’s raining, so we don’t want to spend all night taking salamanders across the road when the real party is at the pond.”
On the way, we picked up some friends who also wanted to experience Salamander Night. It didn’t take long before we had passed several areas where many splattered salamanders and frogs had met with tires and didn’t make the crossings.
This cringe-worthy sight impressed the youth with the sheer volume of this mass migration of amphibians and prompted one of them to ask, “So, Dana, how did you know tonight would be Salamander Night?”
I explained that I start watching the weather in late February or early March for a forecast of this first warm, rainy night after a couple of nights where the temperatures were around 45°-50° F (7°-10° C).
Those warm nights in the early spring awaken the frogs and salamanders from their long winter’s slumber. Since amphibians need to keep their skin moist, the rain facilitates their mass migration from their homes in the surrounding forests to the frog ponds. I use “frog ponds” interchangeably with “vernal pools,” which are temporary pools filled by snow-melt and early spring rains. The event doesn’t necessarily happen on a single night.
Presently, we turned off the busy paved road onto a quiet dirt road. I carefully tried to avoid smashing any amphibians on the road as we neared the pond.
As we piled out of the van, I left the headlights on because they revealed several salamanders crossing road. George eagerly approached a stout 8- to 9-inch (20-23 cm) yellow-spotted salamander. He paused and exclaimed, “Ooh, its huge! Will it bite me?”
“No,” I said, “These salamanders won’t bite. But you’ll be surprised at how strong and wiggly they are when they decide to be, even though they act really slow most of the time.”
George stooped and picked up the salamander.
“Quite a handful, isn’t it?” I said. “See how fat she is? That’s because she is full of eggs. We’ll have to come out again so you can see all the eggs in the pond.
The group scattered along the lit-up portion of the road. It was like a meet-and-greet, as the group picked up various species of salamanders and frogs and were introduced to them. There were comments on how the salamanders are “a little slippery when wet” and “a bit slimy” and “Oh, they are so cold!”
The salamanders are cold to the touch because an amphibian’s body temperature matches its surroundings. I wondered if the girls might have been on the edge of flinging the salamanders, especially upon feeling the sensation of little salamander feet walking on their hands. There were a few gasps of surprise when a hopping frog cast a startling, moving shadow. “What was that?”
“Oh, that’s a wood frog. They are also headed to the frog pond. Just think about it, a few days ago that frog was frozen.”
All in all, though, there were plenty of smiles to go around. One girl commented, “This will make good memories… being in the dark in the bright headlights on a sort of damp, chilly, warm night, with lots of slimy things.”
“Wow! There are soooo many of these huge salamanders, and I have never seen any like them before!” said—well—lots of folks.
I agreed. “I think I have only ever seen one yellow-spotted salamander during other times of the year.”
“Why?” George wondered.
“They live under logs and in tunnels made by other creatures like shrews, where they feed on things like bugs and slugs. Those are some of the reasons they are often called mole salamanders.”
Someone made a good observation. “Why are all the amphibians crossing the road in the same direction?”
“Sure enough,” I replied. “I’ll show you why.”
We gathered on the far side of the road, and I used my big flashlight to point out the series of pools that make up our frog pond. I also mentioned the big creek beyond the sliver of woods on the opposite side of the pools. I explained, “That means that almost all of the salamanders coming to the pools live within a few hundred yards in the woods behind us. Most of these salamanders are returning to their ancestral pool. Think about it! Even though it doesn’t seem very far to us, how can they navigate to their ancestral pool in the dark with no sun or stars to give them a sense of direction?”
“Oh, and another thing! See all those tiny dots of light surrounding the pools? Those are wood frog eyes reflecting the light from my flashlight. They are sitting there on the ground and on low branches watching us. Soon all their calls will make it sound like there’s a pond full of quacking ducks. Along with the spring peepers, you’ll about need earplugs.”
“Anyway, before we get soaked by the rain, let’s go join the salamanders at the main attraction—the salamander dance in the vernal pool. First though, we need to make sure we only use red light at the pools. White light will scare them, and they’ll disappear quick as a wink.”
So we went to the van and taped red pieces of plastic over the front of any of our flashlights and headlamps that didn’t have red light functions.
Then we crossed the road and picked our way down the bank. Upon reaching the frog pond, we carefully shone our red lights into the water.
There on the bottom of the shallow pool was a cluster of about half a dozen yellow-spotted salamanders. Following various exclamations of amazement, I responded, “Just you wait. There will be more places along this series of pools where we will see the salamanders congregating (that’s called a congress), and some will be much larger than this one. There’s a good spot up ahead where we can all watch a big congress do ‘the salamander dance’ if we approach slowly and quietly.”
Just then George exclaimed, “Eeewww, I smell skunk!”
I stooped down and pointed out a skunk cabbage spathe that someone had stepped on. “Yup, it smells like skunk, but this is actually what you smell. This is the flower of skunk cabbage. It’s our earliest spring flower. One thing that’s fascinating about these flowers is that they generate heat! We’ll have to come back soon and use thermometers to take their temperature.”
We poked along and saw another congress of a dozen or so here…and another over there. As we approached an especially good spot, I cautioned the group to slowly point only a few of our red lights onto the water.
There was a large congress with dozens of salamanders slowly twisting and swirling around. This slow dance is dramatic in its own way. The salamanders are swirling around in different directions at different speeds. Some of the salamanders in the congress are just holding still while others are milling around at a walk, and some are twisting and swimming along in their wiggly way. I guess part of what makes the slow swirling a dramatic dance is the quick burst of motion as the salamanders randomly take turns bursting to the water’s surface to fill their lungs with air and then sinking back down to the others. This surfacing makes ripples on the water’s surface which combine with raindrop ripples to add movement and drama to the scene.
We stood for awhile beside the frog pond and enjoyed the action. Eventually I said, “Well, there you have it! That’s the Salamander Dance! At least that’s what I call it. I thinks it’s a fairly dramatic event in nature.”
Perhaps some things that contribute to this are the salamanders’ sudden appearance from seemingly nowhere in a mass movement. There’s also something more…I am thinking of what is to come.
“In a few days, huge jelly-like salamander egg masses will show up in the vernal pool. In about a month, if you look closely at an egg mass, you can see some of the most amazing things (at least I think so) that you may ever see.”
As we started back toward the van, I shone my light on a congress of salamanders one last time and said to the group, “Can you handle seeing one more amazing thing? Did you notice how alive the vernal pool is at night? See there beside that salamander? That’s a minnow mayfly nymph, and there’s another and another. Here’s a water skeeter. There goes a diving beetle—it just surfaced to renew the air in its breathing bubble. Those odd-looking lumps over there are made of leaf pieces, twigs, etc. and are the cases of caddisfly larvae. I just thought you might enjoy seeing how a vernal pool really comes alive at night. If you come back to this pool during the daytime or shine a bright flashlight into the pool, it won’t be so lively.”
As we neared the end of our adventure, I said, “We’ve seen hundreds of salamanders tonight! I suspect you are glad we helped some across the road instead of catching buckets of them, eh, George?”
Hmmm, he’s already asleep. I guess he got to the end of the trail.