For three weeks in March, a one-kilometre stretch of Burlington’s King Road goes eerily quiet. Barricades and signposts lead drivers through an alternate route, though there’s no obvious reason for the detour — no parades, protests, or construction in sight. The road carries travellers only after the sun has set, when the city settles in for the night.
That’s when the Jefferson salamander climbs out of its burrow — typically a former rodent hole — where it has spent the winter months keeping warm below the frost line. It’s headed, along with dozens of its kin, to the ponds across King Road, where the salamanders gather to breed.
In Canada, the small and elusive brownish-grey amphibians are found only in southern Ontario, along the Niagara Escarpment. Because they’re so hard to find, no one can say exactly how many are left — but the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario has classified them as endangered.
The annual mixer is vital to the salamanders’ survival, but to reach the woodland ponds where the magic happens, they often have to cross treacherous roads full of cars and trucks, in a sort of real-life game of Frogger.
That’s why, in 2012, Burlington’s city council voted unanimously to close King Road (after trying with limited success to convince drivers to take a voluntary detour), erecting signs and barricades to give the salamanders a fighting chance at crossing unharmed.
Brenda Van Ryswyk, an ecologist with Conservation Halton, is part of a team that advises the city on dealing with salamander crossings. Every year, they look for dead salamanders along King Road, to measure the success of the closure. They haven’t found a single one since 2012 (in previous years, flattened salamanders were a common sight).
Burlington’s mayor, Rick Goldring, says he hasn’t received any complaints from residents since the closures began and notes that there haven’t been any calls to revisit the policy, either. “Every year the citizens of Burlington, through social media, state how proud they are of the city to do this,” he says. King Road runs through a suburban neighbourhood, and there are no houses along the closed-down stretch. The detour itself adds just two or three minutes of travel time.
Jim Bogart, a researcher at the University of Guelph, has been studying the Jefferson salamander since 1977. While road closures in general can help amphibians avoid an untimely death, Bogart says, they are especially useful for Jefferson salamanders, which cross in big groups as soon as the weather is warm and wet enough. But later in the year, he adds, the salamanders must cross back over to find food and shelter — putting them at risk once more. (During this second crossing, the salamanders move in smaller groups at their own pace, making it less feasible and less useful to shut the road down.)
Bogart says that in some areas, tunnels or culverts can provide amphibians with a safe, permanent crossing, though they tend not to work when the salamanders can’t see from one end to the other. Wildlife overpasses like those in Alberta and British Columbia don’t work for amphibians, since they prefer to stay low to the ground.
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In 2002, York Region integrated five tunnels into the Bayview extension, a major north-south artery in Toronto, so that all amphibians — including the Jefferson salamander — could cross safely to their breeding grounds. On either side, drift fencing is meant to guide them toward the tunnels.
But in Burlington, closing King Road was the best option. “There’s a cliff on one side and then it drops off on the other side,” Van Ryswyk says. “It’s really a tough topography, so the underpass just wouldn’t work.”
Crossing the road is just one of the dangers the salamanders face. “My number-one concern has been habitat loss,” she says. “We want to protect ponds from alteration. If a landowner buys property with a vernal pool, sometimes they don’t realize the richness and benefit of that pond — they see it as a puddle that needs to be fixed.”
Van Ryswyk says these spring ponds contain plenty of vegetation and make ideal breeding grounds for the Jefferson salamanders, which lay their eggs on sticks and plants in the water — but that might not be appealing to landowners who want well-manicured lawns.
“It’s hard to protect a cryptic animal that people don’t see,” Bogart says, noting that when developers drain ponds, salamander larvae (which live underwater) can't survive. And landowners who do keep their garden ponds don’t help matters when they throw larvae-eating fish into them.
Bogart has also extensively studied unisexual salamanders — a group of all-female specimens that are visually near-identical to their Jeffersonian counterparts. They use sperm from male Jeffersons to stimulate egg production, but only sometimes use the Jeffersons’ genes to produce larvae (instead, they usually just produce clones of themselves). It’s unclear whether they pose a competitive threat to female Jeffersons, but they do make those females harder to study, since Jeffersons live alongside groups of unisexuals, who often outnumber them.
That gives Bogart plenty to ponder in his lab. He’s interested not just in conserving the at-risk Jefferson salamander, but also the unisexuals that depend on their genes. Yet as the Jefferson loses ground, and as development prevents the salamanders from moving to new ponds, those unisexuals will disappear too. Bogart wants to determine the best way to protect the little creatures, but he knows there’s a long road ahead: “These things live for about 30 years. It might take some time before we really know what's happening.”
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