Amphibian spring migration underway

LEBANON, Pa (WHTM) – A natural phenomenon is underway in central Pennsylvania involving some of its most elusive creatures. The annual spring amphibian migration happens typically between mid- March and mid-April.

“What we’re going to see tonight, is actually a front row seat at an ancient ritual,” says Jesse Rothacker, an amphibian and reptile expert who operates Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary. Rothacker is our guide as we explore a rural section of southern Lebanon County, known for holding small temporary wetlands that appear as winter snow melts. “For thousands of years, these frogs and toads and salamanders have been coming out on rainy nights in March and April, and they rendezvous at these little vernal pools and lay thousands of eggs.”

At our first stop along a wooded stretch of Route 322, Rothacker leads the way, navigating the dark forest with a bright headlamp. Within a minute, we’ve located a large pool of water, filled with hundreds of thousands of frog and salamander eggs. The eggs belonging to wood frogs are small and gelatinous, about the size of a pomegranate seed. Massed together at the water’s surface, the eggs are clear, with a small black dot in the center, which Rothacker identifies as the beginning of a tadpole. The salamander eggs are lumped together in large sacks that resemble fluffy cotton balls. As we scan the pool with flashlights, we see that it contains a massive amount of both.

“This is actually a really good sign,” adds Rothacker, explaining that some females of these varied species will lay as many as 5,000 eggs each. “They lay them collectively with other females for the protection factor and the insulation. Its not uncommon for a frog egg mass to be covered by thin ice if temperatures drop after they’re laid.” Of course, many of the eggs will either never hatch, or will be consumed by predators as they develop. Those amphibians that do grow to adolescence will face the same threat as they leave their shallow watery birthplace, and venture into the woods where they will live mostly out-of-sight and underground.

What is noticeably missing from this particular pool is the noise of calling frogs. The spring peeper, for instance, a tiny tree frog species rarely seen outside of its migration period, has a particularly high-pitched chip that can reach the 100 decibel range when thousands of the frogs “inflate” collectively, according to Rothacker. While bubbles can be seen intermittently popping up from beneath the mass of egg sacks, no adults of any species are in sight. Rothacker, taking great pains not to disturb the nesting sight, decides to take us to another location a few miles away.

As we approach the new spot by vehicle, the sound of frogs can already be heard as we approach a small wetland area filled with cattail plants. It’s a reminder from Rothacker that these species give ample warning to humans that they’re here, and that drivers should take safety precautions. “Slow down, save a life,” he adds. Many times, the forest-dwelling amphibians must travel across roads to get to their spawning site, and large numbers are squashed beneath tires.

As we walk along the edge of the pond, careful not to disturb any egg masses, Rothacker quickly notices movement just beneath the surface of the leaf-filled water. “Its a spotted salamander,” he shouts, slowly reaching his hand into the water to collect it. At about 7-inches long, and defined by dark gray skin and bright yellow spots, it is an impressive creature. “It is one of the most amazing animals,” adds Rothacker, holding the salamander gently in the palms of both hands. “One of the most amazing natural resources of Pennsylvania. And they’re right under our nose. Most people will never experience one. We meet a lot of landowners, and we like to show them the life that is actually existing in their ponds, and so many have never seen it first hand. They may have heard it, or in the case of salamanders, you don’t event know they’re here, because they’re completely silent. They only come out in the dead of night. You wouldn’t ever know that its real. Its like something from a story book.”

Slowly placing the salamander onto a bed of wet leaves, Rothacker shines his head lamp onto it one last time, as it slinks slowly back into the pond. This particular pond is teeming with activity, and we’re able to locate several spring peepers, hardly the size of a quarter. In one sighting, two smaller males are gathered on the back of a larger female, in an attempt to coerce her to lay eggs so that they may fertilize them. The larger wood frog is also visible, as its eyes reflect in our lights as we scan the surface of the pond. For Rothacker, its an experience he has introduced to many others over the years, and never loses his passion for educating others about these extremely common species that most Pennsylvanians will never personally see in the wild.

“This is what’s magical about them,” he says. “Those are critters that are basically non-existent for the rest of the year. They basically hide underground, until March and April on rainy nights. They make a brief appearance. They usually come back to the same exact pool that they were hatched in. And then they disappear into the woods.”

WATCH the video to learn more.

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