30 March 2022

Big Night, Little Friends: The Great Salamander Crossing

Written by: Sage Shea

While Amherst, Massachusetts is most known for its abundance of colleges and the more than twenty thousand undergraduate students that call it home, the outskirts are quiet and quaint. Driving around, it feels like your average New England town, but for one day a year, the tiny creatures risk life and limb to utilize the roads in this suburbanite town turn Amherst into a town of ecological note.

A young boy holds a clear plastic container. He's wearing a reflective vest and headlight. In his container are two spotted salamanders (grey with bright yellow spots). They migrate during Big Night every year across Henry Street in Amherst, MA where volunteers like this young boy help them cross.

This species isn’t endangered, but they are in danger.

Scientifically known as Ambystoma maculatum, spotted salamanders crawl out of the earth, emerging from their winter burrows into the brisk rainy spring to do what every creature must to persist: breed. Hundreds of these bright yellow spotted amphibians migrate from their homes to vernal pools – shallow temporary pools of water that exist on during wetter months like winter and spring. The problem? This vital trek spans across a frequented local road.

Stepping up since the 1980s, every April citizen scientists have gathered year after year to form bucket brigades to help them make their dangerous trek. And, in 1987, the British Fauna and Floral Preservation Society and the German drainage company, and ACO Polymer, funded the construction of two underpasses to make the salamanders’ pilgrimage safer.

Funnels to Tunnels

Salamanders are funneled to the underpasses by a series of short “drift” fences that are mended each year prior to their journey. These tunnels which are designed with slotted tops to make sure they have the humidity they need to safely travel and overseen by the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. Animal crossings like this have been used for countless wildlife in countless cities and countries. They’re a growing tool in conservation.

My First “Big Night”

Now, almost 30 years later, while hundreds use the tunnels, citizen scientists line up to assist the stragglers. This year, armed with a headlamp and my chosen family, I participated in my first salamander migration, known by locals as the “Big Night.”

I brought my energetic three-year-old Elliott nephew who summarized the night best.

“Where here to find our friends before the cars make them go SQUISH and give them boo boos! They’re going to have babies like baby Quinn!” he said, referring to his mother, and my dear friend, who’s expecting (fittingly, the little one’s expected on Earth Day).

While some were felt the fate of tire, we were able to assist about a dozen salamanders and a handful of frogs who also sought the vernal ponds. Over thirty others walked the road with us, asking commuters to slow down as they scooped various slimy friends, bringing them to the other side. It was an incredible evening. Henry Street was flooded once again with reflective vests and flashlights during this informal organizing.  


Fellow Sage Orville Shea and their nephew Elliott bend over to pick up migrating, mating salamanders as they make their annual trek to vernal ponds. They're wearing reflective vests and holding flashlights.


It’s left me reflecting on how we as a society engage our youth. In the two weeks that have followed Big Night, Elliott has bragged to anyone who would listen about how he’s a salmand super hero (maybe by next year he’ll master all the syllables). His day care friends are amazed, and several parents have asked about how to get involved. To every, “How was your weekend,” I was able to talk about conservation. Many have found it incredible, asking where they can find out more and get involved. While large corporations impact our climate far more negatively and far more severely than any individual action, there is something to be said about the ripple affect of citizen science and a culture of conservation. Ultimately, a serious culture shift is what we need to save our planet. Large consumer and cultural trends away from single use plastics and extensive waste production and towards living a more life deliberately in partnership with nature can help fundamentally move the needle. While an intrinsic environmental consciousness woven throughout all sectors of society is ideal, short of that, cultural shifts can pressure capitalistic entities to move towards reductions in their carbon footprint and waste output. A world where companies ACO Polymer donate to underpasses so we can mitigate some of human’s most harmful impacts on nature.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Location: Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex

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