May 2, 2014
Binghamton University’s Nature Preserve is a central part of the culture on campus, and so are the many creatures it holds. And as Emily Saso reports, one species of salamander in particular is locally famous for its yearly migration using man-made ramps.
Late on a drizzly and warm Friday night during the first week of April, students are huddled with flashlights on one of Binghamton University’s back roads. One of the students says this experience is part of her “bucket-list” to complete before graduation.
“I lived in Mountain View for my first years on campus and it was a huge thing every year. I thought it was interesting to come down one last time before I graduated. This is so cool.”
The crowd is focused on a black and yellow spotted salamander frozen in the middle of the road.
“This actually happens to be a small male, the smallest one out tonight. He’s about 6 inches long and the males will move fairly quickly.”
That’s Dylan Horvath from the Nature Preserve. Horvath and 14 students follow the salamander as it moves across the road.
“He stopped at a leaf for a second because it was something natural to him.”
The salamander finally reaches an asphalt ramp on the road’s curb as excited students look on.
“He went over; good.”
The crowd is gathered to watch the yellow-spotted salamanders make their yearly migration across a road separating the CIW Woods and the Preserve. Dale Madison, a professor at Binghamton University, says the interest in Binghamton’s Yellow Spotted salamander started in the 1970’s. Madison realized back then not only do the salamanders use the back road to migrate; they also need a boost to complete the journey.
“The animals can get over one side, the down side of the curb, but when they travel across to get up the curb on the opposite side they’re not big enough to do it… And early on, back in the late 70’s, I had the maintenance people put asphalt ramps where the migratory corridors were and subsequently saw that these things allowed the animals to crawl up an inclined plane- a ramp basically on the pond side of the road so they weren’t trapped within in the road.”
Observing the yellow-spotted salamanders’ migration has become a staple of campus culture. Dressed in rain gear and equipped with a flashlight of his own, Horvath is the one helping students spot salamanders on the road.
“I have a call list that gets bigger every year” says Horvath, “and a lot of new people want to see it, so you know we’ve gone from 20 people to about 100 people out there, depending on the weather, who go out and watch the salamanders.”
Tonight is no exception. Despite the light rain, many students are patrolling the roads.
Salamanders are so hard to spot for most of the year because they live underground.
“So what they do is they live in the woods for most of the year underneath the ground, and the first warm rain of spring they come out of the ground and they need to travel to ponds or waterways to breed” Horvath explains.
With ramps in place, the salamanders can have a nearly flawless migration each year. The only potential problem is unseasonable weather. The amphibians depend on a warm rainy climate to make their trip.
“I'm always worried they’re going to come out and get trapped in frozen weather. And that has happened” says Horvath.
While watching the small male climb over a ramp, Horvath notes that this isn’t the last leg of the journey. He must find his way to the Nature Preserve’s pond close to the center of the woods.
“And that’s probably 300 to 500 yards away. For little animals, that’s like us walking miles and miles”
Even there, the salamanders still have to worry about keeping their eggs safe until they hatch. Other populations of salamanders usually plant their eggs in spring rainwater, known as “vernal” pools, these salamanders use a pond where fish and other predators live.
“Right these guys from CIW probably have a little bit of a poorer habitat because they’re going to a pond where fish or other things eat their eggs” Horvath explains.
Still, the salamander has completed the daunting task of crossing the road. Horvath is hopeful that Salamanders will stay a central figure on campus for years to come.
“You know in some places, they’re not endangered or anything yet, but they do go locally extinct in areas, so we’re really lucky to still have yellow-spotted salamanders.”