Confessions of a First-time Amphibian Wrangler

I remember the first time I saw a tadpole in mid-metamorphosis. It still had that small fishy mouth, and swimming tail…and then these strange little legs sticking out. I had studied all that in books, but to see it happening right in front of me was simply mesmerizing. How amazing that a living thing can so completely change its body! We can’t do that!

Since then, I’ve compiled a bucket list of nature experiences that I want to have. I want to see a Peregrine Falcon knock a bird out of the sky. I want to see the Northern Lights. The list goes on. And ever since I first heard about it in college, I’ve wanted to experience an amphibian migration, the kind where thousands of frogs, toads, and salamanders come out at night to travel to their annual meeting at the local breeding pool.

And I wanted to be one of those people who get to carry those amphibians across roads that intersect their path. Well I finally got to check that one off the bucket list thanks to the Amphibian Crossing Project, a program coordinated by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ. (See what my experience was like in this video.)

The crossing site where I was stationed occurs on a heavily trafficked road in northwest New Jersey. And the only way that anyone knows about it is because of the discerning eyes of volunteers – thank Goodness for volunteers! – who noticed a huge number of frogs and salamanders moving en masse across the busy road. It turns out that the area also supports a large population of Jefferson salamanders, a species of special concern in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this site will ever be closed to traffic, but the Conserve Wildlife Foundation is studying it as a possible location for an amphibian culvert system. Special tunnels that allow amphibians to migrate under roadways have been used to good effect in other states like Massachusetts. This would be the first site in New Jersey to use them.

To support such a measure, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and their partners need to find out as much as possible about the site and the amphibians that live there, so our efforts involve much more than simply ferrying critters across! Decked out in our finest rain gear, thermals, and reflective vests, we mark down how many amphibians we cross – including how many we can’t save, unfortunately – what kinds of amphibians we cross, and how many cars pass through.

My first night as an amphibian crossing guard was a bit unusual. The weather forecast was changing constantly, and when I arrived, there was no rain – or amphibians – to be seen! Still, our small team took up position along the road’s edge, ready for any frogs and salamanders that might step out from the shadowy forest. And they did…in fits and starts, just like the rain. In the end, the team recorded information on more than 1300 frogs, toads, and salamanders that made an appearance that year.

It was admittedly a roller coaster of an experience for me, from my anguish over those I couldn’t reach in time, to my satisfaction from releasing a wriggling salamander safely on the other side of the road. At the end of the long night, I had the distinct pleasure of feeling like I had made a tangible difference. Wow, what must my bucket list have in store for me next? I can’t wait!

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2 Responses to Confessions of a First-time Amphibian Wrangler

  1. Fascinating video,Kelly. What dedication these biologists and volunteers show. Maybe I’ll join you next year!

    • Kelly says:

      They’d be lucky to have such a nature enthusiast like you there, Melissa. It’s really an amazing experience, and MacKenzie, the project coordinator is top notch.