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Student saves salamanders from getting squashed

THE WASHINGTON POST – Eli Bieri noticed something disturbing as he walked through Presque Isle Park in Marquette, Michigan, a few years ago.

Dozens of blue-spotted salamanders were smashed by cars while crossing from the forest to the wetlands on the other side of the road during their annual migration to breed and lay eggs.

“They were all over the road, squished flat by tyres,” said Bieri, 23, then a freshman ecology student at Northern Michigan University in the Upper Peninsula.

“I’ve always loved salamanders, and it really made me sad,” he said.

The following year, Bieri said he knew he had to do something to help the blue-spotted salamanders that were being crushed by people who drove their cars into the park to stargaze, not knowing any better.

Bieri went to the tool he knew best: He started a university research project to figure out how many of the salamanders were being killed by tyres in Presque Isle Park every year.

A blue-spotted salamander on the move in Marquette, Michigan. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“It’s impossible for a driver to see them at night because they’re black and the asphalt is black,” said Bieri, explaining that the long-tailed salamanders move slowly, increasing their chance of being squashed.

Bieri checked the park road every day for several weeks to see how many salamanders had died during their migration journey.

He found some 400 dead salamanders on the road that spring, and learnt that many of them were getting wiped out on the park’s main thoroughfare every year.

He released his findings, and upon seeing them, Marquette decided in 2020 to block a quarter-mile section of the park’s main road during migration season, from 8pm to 8am.

That year, Bieri found only three salamanders flattened by car tyres, a big victory.

The road closure now happens every year, and other groups joined the city to help let the public know about the salamander’s plight, including the Superior Watershed Partnership and Northern Michigan University.

Once residents found out about the salamanders, they flocked to the park to see them, leaving their cars in safely designated areas, and searching for the critters on foot, Bieri said. “Most people didn’t even know they were there. I was happy to help share that magic.”

Now, salamander-watching expeditions are so popular in Marquette that the city has decided to hold its first Salamander Days this spring – six weeks of events including a salamander art show and hikes to learn about the amphibians’ habitat.

Although blue-spotted salamanders are not endangered, they’re an indicator species that can alert humans to problems in the ecosystem.