Why did the amphibian cross the road? The answer is no joke.
Each spring in Maine untold numbers of frogs and salamanders get run over en route from the woodlands where they hibernate to the vernal pools where they breed. “The road crossings become essentially kill zones,” says Jeanne Christie, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers in Windham. So, on the first warm, rainy spring night, the Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) in Bridgton deploys a contingent of “crossing guards” to assist the amphibians in a ritual known as Big Night.
Human intervention “helps just a fraction of the amphibians who are crossing,” concedes Mary Jewett, an LEA naturalist. “It’s really all about education for us.”
Even the educators needed educating. A decade ago, Bridie McGreavy was head of the LEA’s environmental education program when she read about amphibian breeding habits in David Carroll’s book Swampwalker’s Journal. “I couldn’t believe that I had grown up in western Maine and I knew nothing about these annual migrations,” McGreavy says.
One of the first things she learned was that the migration’s timing and duration are weather dependent. “That first year we had a very dry spring,” McGreavy says. “April came and there was no rain for probably three weeks.”
Because of their short life expectancy (about three years), frogs will try to breed even when the ground is dry. But salamanders require wet conditions to emerge from the ground. And because they can live as long as 20 years, they will skip a breeding season if conditions aren’t right. That appeared to be the case on the LEA’s first organized Big Night. “I said, ‘We’ll just do a nighttime frog walk instead,’ ” McGreavy recalls.
As she led a group of more than 30 people along Dugway Road in Bridgton, it started raining. Suddenly the ground was a-slither with salamanders. “It was the biggest Big Night I’ve ever experienced.”
Another important lesson came shortly thereafter. McGreavy and her group were in the woods a short distance from the road when a voice called to them: “Come out with your hands up!”
“It hadn’t occurred to me to alert the police,” McGreavy says.
Since that inauspicious beginning, Bridgton police and the LEA have forged a successful Big Night partnership. Officers volunteer time to close Dugway Road to accommodate an ever-growing group, which includes children. “If a kid [sees an amphibian in the road] and a car is coming, they want to run out and save it,” says Jewett. “So safety is very important.”
LEA requires participants to attend a training session. (To learn more, go to the Education/Events dropdown menu at mainelakes.org.) And even those who don’t participate in Big Night can do their part by staying off the roads on wet April nights.
UMaine grad students spend Big Night gathering specimens for study — even putting tiny radio transmitters on salamanders and wood frogs to track them. Read about it at downeast.com/extras