Good samaritan saving salamanders


In the next couple of weeks, if you’re driving along 31st Street on a miserable cold, rainy night, you might see a lone figure walking slowly along the road.

Don’t be alarmed.

It’s probably just Mike Caron.

The Lawrence amateur naturalist is just doing a good deed – serving as a crossing guard for smallmouth salamanders.

Caron, a Baker Wetlands advocate for 15 years, said he realized that last weekend’s freezing rain and snow would help bring the salamanders out of their holes to seek out their breeding grounds.

They slink out during dark, cold and wet nights to avoid predators, such as raccoons, birds or garter snakes.

So last Saturday night, Caron went out to help the small creatures, which are about three to five inches long. He found 15 live and four to five squished salamanders out on 31st Street between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue.

“If there’s another late night when it’s raining pretty good, I’ll probably run down there and see what’s going on,” Caron said.

Joe Collins, a herpetologist for the Kansas Biological Survey on Kansas University’s West Campus, has been keeping track of the smallmouth salamanders for nearly four decades.

Collins said the salamanders live underground most of the year, eating earthworms they find on the north side of 31st.

But when the first cold heavy rains come during the year, they leave their safe upland haven.

“This is their one chance a year to have sex,” Collins said, laughing.

The breeding sites are on both sides of 31st Street and in the Baker Wetlands.

“And, apparently, the best sites are along the south side,” he said.

The salamanders lay eggs in the ditches and the small ponds in the wetlands. When the eggs hatch and the larvae grow into salamanders, they eventually crawl up on land and follow the scent trail of parents back to the upland area on the north side of the road.

“They live below ground for the rest of the year until we get good rains in the springtime,” Collins said.

Caron decided to go out on his own Saturday when he saw the weather conditions were right.

He got there about 9 p.m. and met a man from Overland Park who had the same idea.

“It really started sleeting and getting really nasty about 11 o’clock. And that’s when we saw them actively in the road, trying to cross the road,” Caron said. “They were all going from the north to the south.”

The salamanders don’t move very fast.

“It’s quite a trek to get across from one side to the other without two or three cars coming by,” Caron said. “So you’ve got fair odds of getting run over.”

The two men picked up a half-dozen of the creatures that were on the road and moved them to the other side.

Last year, Caron helped to organized wetlands advocates to help the salamanders cross. But he’s decided that’s not safe.

“I don’t want to see the salamanders run over, but I would be a lot more concerned about a human being being run over,” he said. “It’s not a good idea to encourage a lot of other people to go out there.”