It was the sort of night that only a salamander might love. Or a frog.
The temperature was 55 degrees. It was raining. And we were only eight days out from what was likely winter’s final deep freeze, and an unusual late-season heavy snow.
Nearly 40 people, a third of them children, had come to the Parklands of Floyds Fork on a nature quest: catching a glimpse of the annual spring migration of salamanders.
Yes, salamanders migrate.
To be sure, as migrations go, theirs is a modest one, at best. It’s measured in feet, not miles, their journey on four small legs from underground winter hibernation hide-outs to ponds or temporary pools. There they will seek out mates to carry on a biological heritage that goes back perhaps as many as 200 million years.
Still, expectations were high.
“I’ve been hoping to see the salamander stampede,” said a smiling Joan Shanahan, an environmental educator who came to see salamanders in the wild and “the signs of spring.”
Park officials had said hundreds, perhaps a thousand, salamanders could be on the move last Friday night.
Or then, maybe not.
“When you go out and look for an animal, you don’t always see them,” cautioned Olivia Kaiser, the Parklands interpretive ranger who led the group’s flashlight-illuminated, rubber boot slog through a swampy wetland in Beckley Creek Park in eastern Louisville.
“It’s all biological,” added Whit Pennington, another interpretive ranger with the Parklands. “The weather has to be right. The temperature has to be right.”
He said the late cold and snow this year may have disrupted their typical movement.
After a science and conservation briefing in the park’s welcome center, and a reminder not to touch the salamanders and to never take them home as pets, participants donned their rain coats. They pulled out their flashlights and set out in the rain to look for any of about five species of salamanders, which measure just a few inches long, can have colorful skin patterns and look a little like slimy lizards.
On the path, Maya Wright, 6, was stomping in all the puddles she could find as she splashed her way toward our destination about a mile away. “It’s fun because it’s not actually raining,” she said. “It’s sprinkling.”
A chorus of chirping spring peeper frogs provided nature’s soundtrack.
“We came because of this series of audio stories, the Sparkle Stories,” said her mother, Tara Anderson. One of the stories features salamanders, she said, prompting her daughter’s interest in them.
At our destination, along the swollen banks of a pond, we followed Kaiser off the trail and into the swamp. We headed toward what she described as artificial habitat: Boards placed on ground meant to attract salamanders underneath them. They were intended to mimic rocks or logs, where the creatures might be taking refuge along their route.
The mucky ground was uneven. Puddles were a few inches deep. Some vegetation was waist high on an adult. No matter.
“This is better than pizza and a movie night,” said Heather Daily, who came with her husband, Nick, and their two children, Gavin, 9, and Gemma, 6.
Excited children with their hooded rain ponchos and their head-band flashlights looked something like a parade of E.T.s, the friendly alien in the 1982 movie.
Kaiser lifted the first board.
“I don’t see anything,” said Gavin. . “Oh, there’s a slug,” he noticed.
Kaiser directed her flashlight at something that was moving.
“That’s a big spider,” she said.
“I don’t like spiders,” another child said.
When Kaiser slogged to the next board and lifted it up, a mouse-like rodent scampered away from the flashlight’s glare into the grass and the dark of night. “Oh, oh, oh, did you see the vole?” Kaiser asked.
“I saw him, he ran right here, between you guys,” Gavin tells me and my wife, standing nearby.
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That’s about how it went for the next 45 minutes.
There was plenty of nature.
A large frog was slowly crossing a road, its reflective eyes near the pavement the tell-tale give-away. The frog managed to safely navigate the blacktop, even though a car drove by very shortly after we had stopped to investigate.
Other frogs hopped onto a walking path. Maya Wright found a spring peeper.
“She was so excited,” her mom said.
Thousands of meal worms covered one section of trail, and Maya commented that the worms would make birds happy the next morning. We also came across an owl pellet, otherwise known as the regurgitated remains of an owl’s meal, including fur and bones.
“Eew, that’s gross,” one child said.
But for the most of the night, no salamanders were seen, except for three that Kaiser had found crossing another road outside the park and had brought to the welcome center in small glass tanks.
Motor vehicles, she told the group, are among salamanders’ threats to survival. Other threats, she said, include pollution which can easily be absorbed into them through their skin.
Salamanders are amphibians, cold-blooded creatures that live part of their life on land and part in water. And globally, amphibians are among the most threatened vertebrates — animals with backbones — with about 41 percent at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains “Red List” of threatened species.
Closer to home, the Appalachian region including eastern Kentucky has 14 percent of the world’s 535 salamander species, making it an extraordinary salamander biodiversity hotspot, according IUCN. At a 2008 symposium at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park, pollution, climate change, residential development, energy production, mining, and invasive species and diseases were identified as top threats to salamanders in the Appalachians, from southern New York to northern Mississippi.
In Beckley Park, as the night grew darker and the peepers chirped even louder, and as we kept walking around, we eventually found a few salamanders along a path near another pond.
One had distinctive yellow spots and was described as a spotted salamander. It froze under the temporary glare of flashlights. One other, a smaller creature, was identified as a streamside salamander.
“It’s moving,” Maya Wright noted.
“Everyone, stay back,” Gavin Daily said. “Let’s let him get to the pond.”Reach reporter James Bruggers at (502) 582-4645 or on Twitter @jbruggers.
- Salamanders progress through several life stages, including: egg, larva, juvenile and adult.
- Eggs are laid in the water.
- Larvae have external gills for breathing in their aquatic environment.
- Some adult salamanders have lungs, others do not and breath through their skin.
- Spotted salamanders can live 20 years or more in nature.
- Kentucky salamanders are predators.
Sources: University of Michigan, National Wildlife Federation, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.