By Kim Severson, The New York Times, February 21, 2012
|Tom Mann holds a spotted salamander that he was |
helping to cross a road. Photo: James Patterson, NYT
Salamander people are special people. Consider Tom and Debora Mann, biologists in their early 60s who live in a little town near Jackson, Miss.
Mr. Mann looked for salamanders along the road and shoulder of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
When it rains hard at night, they rush to a dark stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway and start scooping salamanders into quart-size freezer containers.
Then (and this is not the premise for a joke), they help them cross the road.
Most rainy nights during the late winter and early spring, dozens — sometimes even hundreds — of salamanders, generally three to nine inches long, try to get from their burrows on one side of the road to seasonal ponds on the other to mate. The salamanders, some of which can live up to 30 years, procreate only once a year. The compulsion to get across that road is unyielding.
Unfortunately, so is the traffic. So the Manns, along with a handful of volunteers, have made it their scientific and personal mission to help. They are out there for hours in the rain at night, cajoling the slimy-skinned amphibians across the wet pavement. The nocturnal animals need moisture to travel and spend most of their days safely tucked in their forest habitat.
The dream is that the National Park Service, which maintains the Natchez Trace, which winds through 444 miles of historical sites from Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, would shut down a two-mile stretch during salamander mating season.
But the volunteers are realists. They know that not everyone cares as deeply as they do about what Mr. Mann, a zoologist at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, describes as helping “ameliorate vehicular take of a non-listed amphibian species.”
In other words, it is hard to generate a lot of interest in preventing salamanders, only a few species of which have been legally declared endangered, from becoming roadkill.
So they have settled for two lights that flash when it is dark and rainy, notifying drivers to slow down to 35 miles per hour from 50. A ticket for breaking that speed limit costs $80 to $500.
It is too soon to tell how well the signs are working. On a recent Tuesday night, the bucket brigade helped at least 120 salamanders make it. But field notes reflected a grim reality. Twenty were found dead.
“You hate it, but what’s even worse is when they are mortally injured. That’s really bad,” said Dr. Mann, a biology professor who met her husband years ago on a college field trip to observe alligators in the Everglades. Mr. Mann was the only one who did not slather on bug spray. He worried it would get into the water and harm the fish. She fell in love.
The Manns do not know of any other national road in the South with designated salamander speed-reduction zones, although there are other salamander-saving efforts. Last month, Homewood, Ala., held its annual salamander festival. People who help salamanders cross the road in that area gathered, but the celebration was muted. A couple of weeks earlier, 41 salamanders had been found dead on a nearby road.
The nation’s herpers — those people engaged in the act of searching out amphibians or reptiles — have long helped salamanders cross rainy roads, protesting development and other environmental threats to the species.
Salamander-saving projects can be found from California’s wine country to the cold, wet roads of Vermont. North America’s first salamander underpass system, basically a culvert built under a road, was constructed in Amherst, Mass., in the 1980s.
In some communities, the salamander, like the spotted owl before it, has become a flash point between conservationists and those who think stopping development or dedicating government money to save salamanders reflects poorly ranked priorities.
When the speed-reduction signs first went up in Mississippi, they were mocked.
“The salamanders will squash just as dead at 35 as they will at 50,” wrote one fisherman on an online forum dedicated to Gulf Coast fishing and hunting.
To be sure, the public is more sensitive to hitting larger creatures, like deer or bears, according to the Federal Highway Administration and wildlife experts.
“You hear the term ‘sexy mega fauna’ thrown around,” said James Andrews, an adjunct professor of herpetology at the University of Vermont. “Something cute and furry, like an otter or a bobcat, gets people’s attention.”
In a report to Congress, highway administration officials said that about 300,000 collisions between animals and cars are reported each year, but the actual number of collisions is much higher. The insurance industry estimates that the annual cost is $200 million.
Still, park rangers who work the salamander-rich section of the Trace parkway say visitors are responding well to the new campaign.
“People come into the information center and say, ‘What are we slowing down for? Deer?’ I say, ‘No, salamanders.’ So word is getting out,” said Sandra Kavanaugh, a park ranger.
The park service has also developed a salamander education kit for elementary school students that includes two spotted salamander models and the book “Big Night for Salamanders” by Sarah Marwil Lamstein.
Out on the rainy parkway, the Manns and their crews have encountered some less-than-friendly motorists but more often they get offers to help.
Recently, two young women stopped while Mr. Mann was scooping salamanders. He explained his mission.
“You’re doing the Lord’s work,” they told him, before driving off, barely missing a salamander.
“Too bad they missed the take-home lesson and failed to more closely scrutinize the road,” Mr. Mann said.