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Why did the Salamander Cross the Road?

HOST INTRO: Spring has sprung, and that means the sounds of New York’s parks are about to change – think robins, spring peepers, oh, and cyclists – on your left! There are also some more hidden residents for whom this is an important time of year – salamanders. They’re an especially important indicator for the health of New York City’s forests and water. As Pia Peterson reports,  this year they’re facing more challenges than ever.

SOUND: Wood frog & Spring Peeper ambi

PETERSON1: Ellen Pehek (PEH-heck), is in Alley Pond Park, in far east Queens, with waders and two giant nets, looking for evidence of salamanders.

(SOUND: Water sounds)

PEHEK1: I’m not finding any tadpoles

PETERSON2: They’re proving hard to find. But Pehek doesn’t mind. She could do this all night. She’s the ecologist with New York City’s Parks and Rec, and she loves salamanders. It’s perfect salamander weather – wet, rainy, and above 40 degrees. These are the ideal conditions for salamanders to come out of hibernation and migrate,

PEHEK2: Well we haven’t come up totally empty, we’ve found a redback salamander.

PETERSON3: It’s beautiful, dark grey with a red stripe running down his back. But that’s one salamander…for the night. Pehek can tell a lot about the health of the parks  by their salamanders. Amphibians are important indicator species for the health of New York’s forests and waterways. Their skin is porous, and they’re easily affected by contaminants or temperature changes. In winter, they hibernate underground. Come April, they emerge and lay their eggs in vernal pools, seasonal wetlands filled with rain and snowmelt. When an April night like this   comes along, there is usually a mass migration- thousands of frogs and salamanders all moving from their hibernation spots to these vernal pools at once. This year, abnormally warm weather in February followed by snowstorms disrupted that routine, and lured many amphibians out before it was time.

PEHEK3: One of the problems with small populations is that these erratic events can wipe out large parts of the population. Last year was a really bad year.

PETERSON4 : Last year, there was a drought. If salamanders can’t find a vernal pool to lay their eggs, they start walking. Up to a quarter mile, the equivalent of 1500 miles for a human. They can face roads, predators and other obstacles. ((Salamanders and other amphibians are crucial to a healthy ecosystem, especially for waterways.))

PETERSON5: Across New York state, some places have begun using volunteers to help the salamanders. They go out on rainy spring nights, counting and ferrying the amphibians across roads on laminated sheets of paper.

HUSTED1: Alright, I think I see a bunch ahead. You got the sheets? Flashlight?   (fades under)

PETERSON6: Laurie Husted and her son Ethan are patrolling the roads in Red Hook, New York

HUSTED2: (sound fades up)…Alright, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10! This is a baby. Look at him!

PETERSON7: The volunteers collect important data that helps scientists track the population. If the salamanders move early because of erratic weather, well, they can lose a lot more than just the data. Laura Heady, helps organize volunteer efforts as the biodiversity outreach coordinator for the NY Department of Environmental Conservation.

HEADY1: I mean I’ve had lots of questions from volunteers asking what’s going to happen to the wood frogs that already moved into the pools, or the salamanders that already moved to the pools, or the egg masses that were already laid.

PETERSON8: It varies by location, but some amphibians and their eggs won’t survive. This is a symptom of one of the larger problems looming for these populations – climate change. If enough years go by with unpredictable weather, either drought or unprecedented bouts of warming and cold snaps, the populations could be in danger for the long term. Daniel Rosenblatt is a biologist at the NYS Department of conservation, he says if you’re using water in New York City, you should care about the salamanders:

ROSENBLATT1: Those same reservoirs and aquifers that provide the water to New York City provide the best examples of intact habitat for species like the salamanders that we’re talking about today. So even though they might not have salamanders in their backyard, the fact that they have good high quality salamander habitat upstream from NYC is paying dividends every time they’re drinking clean water out of the tap.

PEHEK4: So we’ll come back and check later, I might check last week.

PETERSON9: Back in Alley Pond Park, Pehek agrees.

PEHEK5: We’ll just have to keep checking. We won’t know if they’re still here, you know, we have to keep looking.

PETERSON10: Any problem for salamanders, could turn into a problem for us, too. Which is why folks like Ellen Pehek are working so hard to keep an eye out for any major shifts.

SOUND: Peeper ambi continues PETERSON11 : Pia Peterson, Columbia Radio News


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