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Amphibian alert

Each spring in Pepperell, volunteers provide safe passage for salamanders on their nocturnal breeding migration

By Dan O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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PEPPERELL — They wear reflective safety vests, hold flashlights, and make sure living beings get safely across the street.

Calling them crossing guards would be technically accurate, but you won’t see these volunteers escorting children before school. It’s the yellow-spotted salamanders they’re trying to protect.

“A lot of people think it’s really silly,’’ said Pepperell resident Jeanne Nevard. “But to me, it’s like you’re protecting an ecosystem and thousands of lives.’’

Spring is mating season for the salamanders. The process has them move from one vernal pool to another — and they often have to cross a busy road to complete their nocturnal treks. Nevard is one of about 10 regular volunteers who help them make the trip safely in Pepperell.

“I don’t want them to die on my watch,’’ Nevard said.

The volunteers are assigned to a likely stretch of road, where they scan for the roughly 7-inch-long amphibians. When they spot one, they pick it up and carry it across to safety. The salamanders only come out in the evening after a moderate to heavy rain, which means volunteers are constantly checking the weather forecast and coordinating by e-mail.

Nevard is assigned to Elm Street, which she says is long and has several portions that run between vernal pools.

“You’ve got to get in your car and to go the next one, and the next one,’’ Nevard said. “It’s not a social tea party. It’s kind of aerobic.’’

She cruises Elm in her car, searching for the black salamanders with yellow spots. They stick their heads slightly upright as they walk — one of the few ways they can be distinguished from twigs lying in the road.

“They’re such neat little creatures, and they’re pretty helpless,’’ said Gerry Coffey, a Hollis, N.H., resident who has volunteered in Pepperell with his wife, Gail, for about 15 years.

The salamanders need to stay wet to survive. Because of that, volunteers bring water bottles to douse the sluggish creatures when they get too dry while trying to reach their destinations.

The salamanders mate from late March until early May. Weather is a big factor in how often the volunteers come out. They say that in years past they’ve seen salamanders crawling over snowbanks.

“It’s such a cool thing,’’ Coffey said. “You can set your clock to it. The first rainy evening of the spring is when migration occurs.’’

“It’s a really short period of time. But it’s fun and exciting. People are out walking around,’’ Nevard said. “You want to help the little guys.’’

Cathy Merrifield, a single mother of four from Nashua, volunteers in Pepperell with her three daughters.

“Every night they say, ‘I hope it rains!’ They love it,’’ Merrifield said. “You hear all the sounds too. It’s so loud and beautiful. My girls love nature, so they think it’s the best thing ever.’’

In Massachusetts, there are 9,851 segments of road that are within 400 feet of amphibian vernal pools, according to Dave Paulson, an endangered species biologist with the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The yellow-spotted salamander, the most common species found in Pepperell, is not listed as endangered by state environmental officials. But other types of salamanders also found locally, including the blue-spotted salamander, have been placed in the “special concern’’ category by MassWildlife.

Paulson said that over the past decade, small groups of volunteers like the one in Pepperell have been popping up around the state in an effort to save amphibians such as salamanders and certain species of toads.

“Part of the decline of amphibians is attributed to loss of habitat,’’ Paulson said. “Road mortality can be pretty severe. Drivers just don’t see them, and there’s no one helping them cross the road.’’

Most volunteers alert their local police departments about their rescue efforts. They usually go out in groups and make sure they’re wearing reflective vests and using flashlights to increase their visibility for drivers.

“Certainly safety is the primary goal,’’ Paulson said. “You should be taking precautions. It’s common sense things if you’re on a roadway.’’

Another community that has embraced the idea of protecting amphibians is Amherst, where a few years ago small tunnels were installed underneath Henry Street, just north of the University of Massachusetts campus, to allow toads and salamanders to reach vernal pools. At nearby Cushman Common, a small salamander sculpture was erected in 2003.

Nevard describes the yellow-spotted salamanders as having “an internal GPS’’ that tells them during breeding season to move from the vernal pool where they’re living to the vernal pool in which they were born. The females lay eggs in the vernal pools, where the males fertilize them.

Paula Terrasi, Pepperell’s conservation administrator, began the volunteer group here about 15 years ago after she discovered a vernal pool of wood frogs behind her home.

“We keep wiping out species. We do a pretty good job of it,’’ Terrasi said. “With wildlife, it could be so small you need a telescope to see it, but that small thing might be feeding fish, and that feeds something else.’’

Nevard said she’s most concerned about getting younger volunteers to save the salamanders, as she and other members are getting older. Her group is always seeking new members.

“If no younger people are coming up behind us, you don’t know if they’re going to make it,’’ she said.

For more information, contact the Pepperell Conservation Commission at 978-433-0325.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this Globe West article, “Amphibian alert,’’ provided incorrect information about the migratory patterns of salamanders. In the spring they migrate from their woodland homes to vernal pools to mate.