Wildlife Tunnels : Safeguarding a Mighty Salamander Migration
This story begins with Elizabeth “Bess” Murray and Jim Murray, and a discovery made in 1993. Listen to this Natural History Note by Bess, recorded by WTJU in 2015. Bess passed away in Spring of 2017, but her passion for these beautiful animals lives on in the action being taken now by the community.
MARCH 2015: A Natural History Note by Bess Murray, “The Rediscovery of the Spotted Salamander Migration Across Polo Grounds Road and an Apparently New Population on the West Side of Route 29”.
A massive colony of amphibians can be found at the high-traffic intersection of Route 29, Rio Mills Road, and Polo Grounds Road. One of the most eye-catching of these amphibians, the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), lives in the woods here in astounding numbers. For decades these salamanders and the other animals have been forced to battle the busy roads in order to successfully migrate from the forested upland areas to their mating grounds on the floodplain below. Many meet a gruesome fate. For the first time in thousands of years they hang by a thread at this most riveting biological site.
Bess and Jim Murray worked tirelessly for many years to help these animals, including the installation of silt fences to guide them to a culvert under the road. After Jim discovered the population in late winter of 1993, other passionate naturalists joined the effort, including Nancy Newman, Connie Cotton, and Melba Atkinson. One year, after some forest clearing and development, the colony of salamanders appeared to have been wiped out. After being followed and studied by members of the community for more than ten years, they appeared to be lost. That was the assumption until one evening in late winter of 2015, Devin Floyd (CUH Director) had a gut feeling that perhaps only a naturalist is afforded. It was a chilly night, but well above freezing. Snow and slush lingered and a low fog hung across Charlottesville. A steady rain cut the thick night air. Conditions were prime for a salamander migration, and Devin could not resist the urge to investigate, just in case. When he pulled onto Polo Grounds Road there were dozens of large salamanders visible in the headlights. Some of them were dead. Others continued forth, even with injuries, with the singular mission of reaching their breeding grounds on the floodplain below the road.
Ever since that 2015 re-discovery a small volunteer army has gathered on the evening of migration to help the animals across the road. 2018 will be the fourth year in a row, and it could be the last! After years of planning and work, salamander tunnels will be installed as part of a road renovation, ensuring the conservation of the animals and their breeding habitat. “Salamander tunnels” are actually fit for use by all small animals. The guide walls that direct the animals to the tunnels are engineered to ensure animals do not get on the road. There will be wildlife tunnel access on both sides of the road, assuring the safe migration of thousands of amphibians, mammals, and reptiles.
CUH has been working to spread an awareness of this important biological site by creating education information and rallying volunteers. They have accomplished this work, building on the dedicated historic work of Bess and Jim Murray, in coordination with the Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee, the Board of Supervisors, VDOT, Riverbend Development Inc., and the community.
This 3 year conservation effort and the 2018 tunnel project are an unprecedented achievement for the region. It sets an example for how curiosity, vision, and action can lead to important discoveries, and how cooperation and collaboration between seemingly disparate entities can achieve great things.