Why did the salamander cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. Each year, the City of Burlington closes King Road from the base of the Niagara Escarpment to Mountain Brow Road for three weeks to ensure safe passage of the endangered Jefferson salamanders during their breeding migration.
This annual, not-so-epic migration allows Jefferson Salamanders to fulfill the important life cycle stage of reproduction by providing access to critical habitat. I say not-so-epic because their migration isn’t the kind you think of when you hear the word. These critters aren’t flying 4, 800km like the Monarch Butterfly or swimming 22, 000km like the Humpback Whale. In the case, these Jefferson Salamanders are migrating just a few kilometres, at most. It’s a short walk for us but when your legs are only a few centimetres long, it can be quite a journey—especially when the journey has you going head-to-head with a Chevrolet. At 80kms an hour, that Front Automatic Braking isn’t going be much help to the Jefferson Salamander. On second thought, maybe their migration is pretty epic!
In Canada, the Jefferson salamander is found in specific areas of deciduous forest in southern Ontario, along the Niagara Escarpment. As the weather warms up and the spring rains begin, the salamanders emerge from underground, which is where they spend most of their lives, and begin their migration to the ponds where they will lay their eggs. Adult salamanders prefer to breed in the same pond where they hatched and can be so determined that they will sometimes put themselves in danger, such as crossing a busy road, to reach it. By the end of summer, the Jefferson salamander eggs that were laid will have hatched, the young salamanders will have been born and they will then leave the pond to head into the surrounding forests. Having been imprinted, these salamanders will return to breed in the same pond for their entire life. Unlike most small reptiles, Jefferson salamanders can live for up to 30 years.
24-inch branch covered with four-day old Jefferson salamander eggs.
The temporary closure of King Road began in 2011 as a voluntary road closure, with motorists being encouraged to use alternative routes, but road mortality surveys showed that this approach was ineffective. The following year, the City of Burlington agreed to install a barricade. The first attempt to block King Road was using a wooden sawhorse barrier but many motorists removed or drove around it. Next, we tried two concrete blocks, with one placed in each lane but again, motorists drove around them. Eventually, we were able to install four concrete barricades, which made it impossible for vehicles to maneuver around them. As a result, Conservation Halton staff have not observed any road mortalities of Jefferson salamanders during the road closure periods since 2012.
The road closure has received public applause and widespread media coverage but the closure itself has not been without challenges. Timing the closure is a bit of a guessing game with the weather forecast. Jefferson Salamander migration is triggered by specific temperature, precipitation and wind conditions, and with so much variability from year to year, it’s difficult to predict when the road should be closed. Typically, you would expect movement from mid-March to mid-April, but we have seen movement in early March and in late April. This year, the mild weather we had in February may have already triggered the movement of some Jefferson salamanders far earlier than we have ever seen before.
There are lessons from the King Road closure that we can apply elsewhere. We drive around, going about our lives, not paying much attention to how our surroundings are functioning as habitat but habitat is everywhere you look—even in our developed landscapes. Go for a drive and count the number of hawks flying overhead and sparrows perched on power lines. Notice the animals that have fallen victim to our vehicles. As watershed residents, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to support the protection and creation of habitat. To do this, you can promote habitat restoration, encourage the creation of wildlife crossings and passes, make habitat improvements on your own property and, of course, brake for salamanders.
Last modified: April 6, 2018