Salamanders are mass migrating from their winter burrows to ponds for spring breeding

Published: April 9, 2019

blue-spotted-salamander-on-a-green-leaf Photo by Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

In late March and early April, spotted salamanders, blue-spotted salamanders, and endangered Jefferson salamanders emerge from winter burrows in Ontario’s forests and begin a mass migration to ponds to breed and lay eggs. This migration is set in motion by rising spring temperatures, rainy days, and melting snow. It’s a good thing they’re back: salamanders play a key role in our ecosystem’s health by consuming a large variety of invertebrates, including unwanted cottage pests like mosquitoes, snails, and slugs.

Salamanders are amphibians, a group of animals that also includes frogs and toads. They breathe by absorbing water and gases right through their thin, moist skin. They live in damp environments, with species like the spotted salamander spending the majority of its life under leaf litter, rotting logs, and tunnels.

Ontario’s spotted salamanders, blue-spotted salamanders, and endangered Jefferson salamanders lay their eggs in vernal pools—temporary ponds that form in the spring from run-off. Because these ponds evaporate as temperatures rise and spring turns into summer, they provide a safe haven for amphibian larvae, as no fish can survive there.

While their secretive lifestyles and small size generally keep salamanders well-hidden from human eyes, the spring migration puts the amphibians at risk by bringing them out into the open. Salamanders prefer to return to the vernal pools in which they hatched, and they’ll travel over snow and across roads to reach their destination. Making their migratory treks at night under the cover of darkness, they are at risk when they have to cross roads. The danger of roads can be so substantial that in Burlington, Ontario, King Road is closed down annually for around four weeks to allow the endangered Jefferson salamander to safely cross on its spring journey.

Patrick Moldowan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto studying spotted salamander populations and their biology in a changing world, says, “Unfortunately, migration brings them into conflict with roads that have fragmented their habitats.” He strongly encourages cottage owners to avoid driving on the warm, rainy nights of spring. “The moist and often dark skin of small-bodied, slow moving amphibians is very difficult to discern from the wet road surface, therefore the chance of road mortality are very high for these animals.”

Cottage owners can help protect salamanders and other amphibians by leaving any vernal pools on their property in a natural state. Leave the pools undisturbed: don’t let dogs run through the water, and don’t ride bikes or ATVs through the pools either. And avoid using any pesticide or fertilizer near vernal pools, as amphibians are particularly sensitive to chemicals in the environment due to their thin skin.

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