Salamanders get a little help from a Sammamish woman
December 5, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: Dec. 6, 11:24 a.m.
Salamanders, as it happens, are kind of dumb. When the little amphibians scurry across the road and hit the curb on the other side, they don’t know what to do. Luckily for them, Kate Poaster does.
For the past 10-12 years, Poaster has been walking the streets of Sammamish in the wee hours of the morning, picking up the salamanders and depositing them at the top of the curb during their twice-a-year migrations.
“Salamanders can’t climb straight up curbs,” Poaster said.
Yes, salamanders migrate.
Poaster finds that the fall migration, which is now starting to trail off, starts after the first frost, and once the rains begin. At its peak, on a really rainy night, she said she finds dozens of salamanders stranded at curbs, and she sees dozens more who have found some way or another, or were maybe lucky enough to cross the street and find a curb cut meant for cars.
“If you hit it just right, it is the most amazing evening,” she said.
The numbers are fairly typical, said Jared Grummer, a doctoral student at the University of Washington who studies evolutionary biology and amphibians.
Grummer said the salamanders are likely heading to their breeding grounds. Like a more famous Northwest native, the salmon, salamanders often return to the spot where they hatched in order to start their own families.
“Some individuals will come to breed at the same pond year in, year out,” he said.
And year in and out, Poaster walks the streets looking to help them. She started doing this years ago when she would go for her morning walks around 212th Avenue Southeast, Southeast Eighth Street and Southeast 20th Street.
When she first saw them, she didn’t realize the animals were migrating. Then Poaster, who teaches environmental science at various Issaquah district schools, said she eventually realized what was going on as she stopped to help.
Poaster often goes out for walks with a flashlight, scanning the sides of the road and using her foot to disturb piles of leaves up against the curb.
Sometimes, she said, she finds a few of them who think they’ve found a safe spot there on the roadside. She moves them along.
After years of doing it, she occasionally recruits her husband to help. On particularly foggy or rainy days, he’ll follow along behind her, using the headlights of his car to light the way.
She also finds herself stopping traffic to get out and lift animals to safety.
“There’s nothing more irritating (for other drivers) than when you stop your car to go pick up a salamander,” Poaster said.
None of the salamanders in this area are endangered, Grummer said, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use a little help. He said that what Poaster is doing is generally good. Since people built the curbs which block the salmanders, it’s reasonable that a person would help them over it.
He noted that in some places, localities go to rather extreme measures to protect the creatures. In Berkeley, Calif., he said, officials close some streets during migration times. Other places put up fencing to try and funnel the salamanders to a culvert or other spot where they might cross.
Poaster said she’s identified three different species of salamander and newts (newts, the same sort whose eyes end up in witch’s cauldrons, are a subset of salamander) crossing the road.
Once they get across, they’ll head to their breeding grounds, Grummer said. The males drop a sperm packet, which the females scoop up, and then – voila – there are fertilized eggs.
About a month later, the eggs hatch. The salamanders spend some time fully aquatic, similar to the tadpole stage of a frog’s life, before moving up onto land, Grummer said.
Once they’re adults, they like to find a spot underground, since the sun will dry out their skin, which is also the reason they migrate when it’s still dark. At that point, they play a key role in keeping the environment running.
Grummer said he’s read studies of some forested areas on the East Coast where salamanders were found to be the most abundant animal, in terms of biomass, in some areas.
Poaster said she’s seen some salamanders eaten by raccoons, owls, blue herons and garter snakes (see “arms race” sidebar).
Grummer said salamanders typically eat bugs and are, in turn, eaten by things like raccoons, foxes, and some birds.
“Just because people don’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not important and they’re not there,” he said.
The Northwestern salamander oozes poison. Touching it might be OK, but certainly eating it would be a problem.
Jared Grummer, a doctoral student at the University of Washington who studies evolutionary biology and amphibians, said the salamander poison is the most potent in the animal kingdom. Grummer said there is a distinction between a poison, which must be ingested, and venom, which something like a spider or a snake will inject into a victim.
Grummer said the only thing that can eat a salamander is a garter snake, which has developed immunity to the poison. Even then, the snake must remain still for quite a while after ingesting the salamander, so its body can focus its energy on not allowing the poison to spread.
Over generations, Grummer said, scientists have noted the salamanders’ poison has gotten more potent, and snakes have found new ways to resist it. The relationship has lead to a sort of arms race, with each species evolving in tandem, trying to out-do the other.
“It’s one of the classic examples people think of,” he said.