Sallies Forth

Why did the salamander cross the road? To get the Amphibian Hotline off his back.

The Road to El Dorado
Just when everybody decides the call will never come, the call comes.

"If it looks good, they'll probably start running tonight," imparts the voice on the line, a throaty version of Mister Rogers. It discloses directions to a discreet location, involving daunting inclines and the crumbling treachery of a carriage road.

Bring a flashlight and wear your hip boots. It's the night of the salamander rave party, an exclusive outing open only to the brave and unscheduled few who've signed up for the Amphibian Hotline. Deep Throat/Mister Rogers is actually Paul Motts, indefatigable naturalist for the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, who shakes the phone tree with the help of Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Peggy Jarrett.

Though not on the scale of the wildebeests crossing the Serengeti or Sam's Club shoppers making a mad dash for the last case of Slim Jims, Ohio's salamanders put on a backwoods spectacle that's a blend of mystique, minutiae, and cheap family entertainment. Hormones raging, the subterranean homies lie in wait for a warm, rainy night in late winter to emerge from their burrows and embark en masse on an epic journey from one side of the road to the other, where they will mate, lay eggs, and then haul tail back home.

But unlike those plucky swallows of Capistrano, salamanders don't stick close to the calendar (indeed, once in a while, they don't even show up), which makes it hard to plan parades around their arrival. The parks host the hotline so amateurs don't have to blindly guess when the little guys will go, which can be any night from late February to mid-April.

"So few times do we schedule our lives around nature," muses Jarrett, reveling in the arbitrariness of it all. "We have to call you when they're moving. You have to cater to the animals."

Measured against the usually mouth-dropping facts of nature, the trek is inspiring because of its picayune proportions. Every year, the gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to Baha. For a spotted salamander, a walk to the next log can be just as monumental.

"In some cases, they'll move as far as 1,200 feet to a breeding area," marvels Tim Matson, curator of vertebrate zoology and resident salamander-watcher at the Natural History Museum. "When you're short-legged and you have to drag your belly 500 to 1,000 feet, that's a long journey."

On public land, among the best places to bear witness to their herd instincts are the Metroparks' North Chagrin and Brecksville reservations. Watching the walk can be an obscure but big thrill, a kind of "We Are the World" of amphibians, with hundreds getting in on the act at times.

"It's pretty incredible when you see a really good one with a large population," enthuses area salamander kingpin Ralph Pfingsten, a retired high school teacher and author of the not-quite-#1-bestseller Salamanders of Ohio. "And you won't just see salamanders -- you'll see three or four kinds of salamanders and several species of frogs."

A self-described "kid in the mud puddle who never grew up," Pfingsten has been monitoring salamander migration since the late 1970s, when he was earning his master's degree in biology at Kent State University. For the 45 to 50 dedicated salamander watchers in the region, his book is a bible. Though a scientific field guide for the most part, it's not without its human moments.

"Those who have tramped Ohio in search of these animals have marveled as I," he writes in the preface, noting that his pursuit has taken him to some of the most beautiful and remote places in Ohio. He waxes on the pleasures of meeting the locals in Celeryville, Ohio, who happily coexisted with the pungency of the sulfur springs on one end of town and the sauerkraut plant on the other. And hooking up with Jonas Howell, a shack-dweller in Vastine Hollow who, when Pfingsten asked if he could explore his property, spun stories of the giant swamp rattlers that roamed the land.

"You run into those kind of people," says Pfingsten. "The first thing they wanna do is tell you about all the snakes, how big and how dangerous they are. You just nod and smile and say, "Oh yeah? That's interesting.'"Back on public land, Jarrett and Motts often hang around the woods after hours, waiting for the salamanders to "pop." When the naturalists turn in, night volunteers take over. Prime slithering time is from about 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

At the first signs of movement, salamander spotters alert park rangers, who put up roadblocks in high-traffic areas, so nobody loses a webbed foot to a wanton SUV.

Without the barricades, things can get ugly. Pfingsten -- whose slippery adventures have gotten him lost, stranded, and arrested -- has seen the carnage firsthand.

"If you find a good population, you might see 100 squashed bodies on the road the following morning," he says. "And that can be pretty gruesome."

On the bright side, the resulting roadkill provides a taste-tempting feast for all the neighborhood raccoons, possums, skunks, and coyotes. "They'll clean the carcasses off the road, and sometimes, it'll be gone by morning."

The roadblocks, first erected in the late 1970s, after Pfingsten and a Metroparks naturalist petitioned the park board, once read "Road Closed -- Salamanders and Frogs Crossing." But all those signs were stolen, apparently a lucrative commodity among the college prankster crowd, so the barricades are naked now.

Salamander groupies are a scarce and solitary lot, lurking amid the region's vernal pools (murky mating ponds that dry up in summer), looking for action, says Matson. Frog and toad people are somewhat more common, since those creatures are less elusive.

"You have a good opportunity of seeing frogs during the daylight hours," he explains. "They call. They make sounds. People are more aware of them. They've received more media attention.

"Salamanders are more secretive. They live underground most of their lives, require moist habitats, and are nocturnal, so many people don't encounter them."

Indeed, among the membership of the Northeast Ohio Herpetological Society, which encompasses native and exotic reptiles and amphibians, salamander fans are few, says Martin Rosenberg, a Case Western Reserve University senior instructor and co-founder of the herp group. Maybe that's because salamanders don't have the widespread danger appeal of, say, timber rattlesnakes or green iguanas -- even though when licked, their slimy skin can be highly toxic to household pets and highly psychedelic to humans.

But all licking aside, they're significant to the bioregion, with more salamanders per woodland acre than deer or squirrels, says Rosenberg. They're also a crucial environmental indicator, in the sense that they're the first to die off when things get bad. And though nowhere near Bambi-like, they've got the gross and slimy factor working in their favor. At a Meet-and-Greet-the-Amphibians gathering in late February, Jarrett tells the hotline assignees that the "sallies," as salamander familiars and people just trying to be cute call them, should hustle out by the second week in March. But this year, they turn out later, reinforcing nature's wily ways, inaccurately measured by both precision instruments and a dirt farmer whose knees ache when a cold front's a-coming.

By the third week in March, an anxious Jarrett is still marking time. Salamanders or no, she's about to skip town for two weeks. "You can't force things," she says. "Either it happens or it doesn't."

The salamanders finally move on March 19. Jarrett's at home packing for her trip, so it's up to Motts to alert the troops. Since the weather's been flighty -- a small community of mud-colored Jefferson salamanders stuck a toe out on February 24, but a snowstorm drove them back -- he doesn't expect a mass exodus.

"I can't promise that we're gonna see salamanders," he announces, once the group of parents and post-bedtime grade-schoolers has assembled in a wayside gravel lot at Brandywine Falls Park. "It's always unpredictable in nature, but tonight it's a pretty good chance, so we're gonna give it our best shot."

By lantern light, they trek past a neighboring bed and breakfast, where gawking guests stand on the porch, possibly wondering whether they're witnessing the after-hours procession of some psychotic death cult. The rush of the falls sounds like low-flying airplanes, drowning out the collective slurp of rubber boots.

At the vernal pool, a soup of black water and dead leaves, it's not exactly Charlton Heston leading the chariots. The salamanders are migrating, but in trickles, not piggybacking droves. Actually, it's hard to tell what they're doing, because of all the black water, dead leaves, rotting logs, sticks, and more dead leaves. But Motts, in his trusty waders, comes through, slogging hip-deep in the pool. He skims the surface with a net.

"Look, I found one!" he shouts, raising the catch triumphantly. Finding terrestrial salamanders in the water, where they stay only to lay eggs, is proof that they're pilgrimaging.

His enthusiasm is contagious, at least until everyone who wants to has held Mr. (or Mrs., you can't really tell) Salamander -- who's about four inches from tip to tail -- for a few slick seconds. Then it's back to the parking lot and the minivan ride home.

But that's not the end of the sallies. They'll be migrating intermittently through April, so if your interest is whetted, you can get directions from the parks service and go out on your own for the next few weeks, says Motts.

As for Pfingsten, he has seen so many migrations that he doesn't have to dash out anymore. Unless called out on a paid gig, he's content to stay home with Marvin, his pink-skinned pet hellbender salamander, tipping the ruler at 15 inches.

Marvin and his ilk are easily mistaken by unsuspecting fishermen for a "hideous monster that's gonna tear their arm off." But in real life, Marvin's just a big lug. Every day, Pfingsten hand-feeds him a single earthworm.

"He doesn't really do much," he says. "He just kind of lays there all day long and looks at you. You don't really grow any attachment to him." Now that's domestication.

Laura Putre can be reached at [email protected].

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