Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Princeton Salamander Crossing Brigade

Meet the Princeton Salamander Crossing Brigade. They joined together one warm, rainy night last week with a shared mission to help the local amphibians safely reach their breeding grounds up along the Princeton ridge.
Their objects of affection and devotion are frogs like this one, 
and salamanders like this. Due to land preservation efforts that began with the donation of Herrontown Woods nearly 70 years ago and continue to this day with a critical initiative to save the 90 acre Lanwin tract, there is still enough forest and clean water along the ridge to sustain these charismatic and ecologically important creatures. After long winter dormancy, it's these first warm, rainy nights that stir wood frogs, spring peepers, and spotted salamanders to action. 

Their goal is to reach the vernal pools that dot the woodlands of the ridge, where they will gather to mate and lay clusters of eggs before withdrawing back into the forest. Only one thing stands in their way. 


Herrontown Road dates back to the early days of Princeton. It rides the top of the ridge, winding around the back side of Herrontown Woods. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of amphibians, seeking the vernal pools in which they were born, unknowingly risk being crushed when they cross this strip of pavement. A spotted salamander can live more than 20 years, so that each loss has consequences for decades to come.

Interest in taking action to help the amphibians, many of which are females carrying eggs, has been growing. This is our first year placing signs along the road, in an appeal to drivers to slow down and keep an eye out for the little creatures. Trish Shanley of the Ridgeview Conservancy introduced us to Charlotte Michaluk and her sister Sonja, who have been studying amphibians and received grant funding to make these signs.

We also had some signs hand-painted by Boy Scout Troop 43.

Inge Regan of the Friends of Herrontown Woods created a series of signs that add up to a message, inspired by the Burma Shave signage that once dotted American roadsides. 

We can hope drivers will respond to signage, 

but all too frequently, the result is this, 

and this. 

Even the most careful driver is unlikely to see this little frog, a spring peeper. Much of the damage done to nature by human activity is unintentional. Good will and good intentions are not enough.

In some places in the state, roads are closed on these first warm, wet nights so that amphibians can cross safely. It's also possible to build tunnels under the roads. But none of this is as yet possible for Herrontown Road.

Thus, it was time to don reflective vests, acquire strong headlamps and good raincoats, and gather at dusk to help the amphibians survive their road crossings. 

We first received training at a workshop led by staff of the Sourland Conservancy, ConserveWildlifeNJ, and Somerset County Parks Commission, who taught us basic safety protocols and how to pick up the amphibians. First and foremost, get off the road when a car is approaching, and it's important not to have any hand lotion that could harm the amphibians' sensitive skin.

Over time, FOHW board member Inge Regan has brought together a passionate group of experts and novices, students and teachers, neighbors and FOHW members, all of whom communicate by text via a whatsapp group, sharing knowledge and photos, planning action, and generally cheering each other on. Hopewell teacher Mark Manning and Princeton native Fairfax Hutter have been lending their expertise, along with Lisa Boulanger, a neighbor who has essentially adopted Herrontown Road, regularly picking up litter and protecting the wildlife. Also a font of knowledge is Princeton High School teacher Mark Eastburn, who along with his students has gotten involved. 

One PHS student, Bhavya Yaddanapudi, is conducting research on vernal pools in Herrontown Woods. 

Helping with the crossing, as Daniela Gonzalez of PHS discovered, offers a chance to get up close to animals that are otherwise elusive, spending most of their lives hidden under leaves and logs in the forest.

Inge Regan's son Dylan also lent a hand, highlighting the multi-generational nature of the enterprise. As Inge reported in an email: "On our biggest night, 2/28/24, we had 15 volunteers out. We had over 121 passing cars, and we were able to save 40 amphibians. There were 49 DORs."

DOR stands for "dead on the road" -- amphibians run over by vehicles.  

The following day, Bhavya's father, writing on the WhatsApp group, captured the sentiments of everyone involved:

"Was great to see so many come together last night. The DOR stats are startling to say the least, witnessing was even more painful. Pls count me in for any efforts to bring change to our town policies that can minimize this carnage. Thanks again for including us." 

1 comment:

  1. Is it only one night that this crew is out there? Only one night that amphibians cross? Seems like it should be many nights. I’ll volunteer.