Saving the salamanders | News, Sports, Jobs

Siera Burke, left, lifts Tomi Pickering into the air through an obstacle course where kids acted as salamanders trying to cross a road. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)

PAUL SMITHS — It’s a cool spring night. You’ve just woken up from a winter-long nap, and you’re emerging from your burrow. You’re looking for a vernal pool and another salamander to share it with.

You come to the edge of a road and start to wiggle across, slowly but certainly. Then, you see a truck down the road, speeding your way. It seems like it’s over for you, but suddenly you’re lifted from the ground and rushed out of traffic. In a few moments, you’re on the ground again, much closer to the pool and in the safety of some slimy spring leaves. Not all salamanders are so lucky, but many salamanders crossing Keese Mills Road each spring are hitching a ride on the hand of a Paul Smith’s College student.

Yelena Jaquith, a Paul Smith’s College student and member of the Paul Smith’s student subchapter of the Wildlife Society, said Paul Smith’s students get out every year to help salamanders cross Keese Mills Road. Students have wanted to get the public involved with the efforts for a while, but it’s not as simple as picking up a salamander and walking it to safety.

Two amphibian diseases — Ranavirus and Chytrid Fungus — have popped up in the US over the last two decades because of imports from the pet trade, according to Jacquith, and the diseases cause a nearly 100% mortality rate in salamanders and frogs.

Students decided to create an event that combined public education about salamander migration and amphibian diseases. That’s how the first Salamander Festival, which was held at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center this weekend, was born.

Learning is fun for everyone

The VIC was buzzing with kids, adults and students on Saturday. There was an Easter egg hunt, obstacle course, and creative activities for kids and educational talks about climate change and amphibious diseases for adults.

The obstacle course, where kids had to jump from the inside of one hula hoop to another, taught kids about how hard it is for salamanders to cross roads. There was also a competition to see who could do the best impersonation of a salamander that’s marking his territory — which looks oddly like a human push-up — and both kids and adults joined in.

Vermontville resident AJ Arnold and his family were there hopping through the obstacle course, hunting for eggs and learning about salamanders. AJ helped his youngest son, Ben, sail from hula hoop to hula hoop, and he even performed his best salamander push up with the kids.

AJ said his oldest son, Isaac, showed an interest in salamanders after watching an educational cartoon about them. They have a book on salamanders at home, too, and after the festival, the kids were ready to raid the center’s gift shop for more.

“They want all the books in there,” Arnold said, looking on as Isaac and Ben peered through binoculars at some goldfinches that were flitting around outside.

Though Ben was more interested in the egg hunt, AJ said Isaac was learning new things about wildlife at the Salamander Festival. After a presentation on salamander life cycles, Isaac raised his hand to ask questions. AJ said they were enjoying themselves so much that they wanted to stay for the whole festival, but lunch was calling.

Jaquith said that the Paul Smith’s student subchapter of the Wildlife Society, which hosted the event, hopes to make the Salamander Festival an annual activity.

Salamander crossing

If you want to help Salamanders cross the road this spring, you can often find them on Keese Mill Road and other wet roads that run through forests. Salamanders usually cross at night in early April when it’s above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and raining, and they cross back again in late May. If you’re helping out salamanders, don’t forget to take steps to prevent amphibian diseases.

The best way to prevent Ranavirus is to sanitize your hands before handling salamanders. After sanitizing, rinse your hands in a nearby, direct source of water. Students suggested bottling some of that water up to rinse your hands off with.

To prevent Chytrid Fungus, wash your shoes with soap and water or diluted bleach before and after each trip, try to limit how much you handle animals and sanitize your hands.

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