Saga of the salamander

Close-up of a long-toed salamander Long-Toed Salamander
© Parks Canada

Approaching the village of Waterton Park you pass through the land of the long-toed salamander and into their story

On a blustery rainy night in the fall of 1991, a park employee saw something odd on the road when driving toward the Visitor Reception Centre. Perplexed, he stopped and discovered salamanders - lots of salamanders! What was going on here?

He quickly determined the salamanders were having difficulty climbing over a new road curb. Even more salamanders were backed up on the road. It then became obvious. The curbs constructed as part of an earlier road improvement project had become an unforeseen obstacle in the way of the amphibian's ritual breeding migration between Linnet Lake and the lower slopes of Crandell Mountain. Despite an extensive environmental study before construction, this large migration of salamanders went undetected.

Thirteen centimetres (5 in.) long and weighing just six grams, the nocturnal long-toed salamander, even with its vivid yellow stripe, is not as easily noticed as the bears most people wish to spot in the park. Nevertheless, as word got out about the salamanders'plight they became a community sensation.

The following spring, before changes could be made to the curb, local volunteers turned up to, literally, lend a hand. During two cool, rainy nights that April, they carefully lifted nearly 1,200 salamanders over the curb!

Meanwhile, the park warden service began a project to test and monitor alternatives to get the salamanders up and on their way. Ramps seemed to offer a logical solution. Wardens, however, needed to determine the correct slope, material and spacing of the ramps.

Picture of the new, gently sloping salamander-friendly curbs New salamander-friendly curbs © Parks Canada

In the spring of 1993 wood ramps were placed along the roadway and monitored, with mixed results. The salamanders had difficulty climbing some of the smoother curbs and those that crossed to a point without a ramp tended to continue to try climbing the regular curb until they were washed down the road by rainwaters. Once again the community pitched in to help the salamanders over the curb.

It was then decided that the curbs would be taken out and replaced with a new, gently sloped cement curb, 'roughened' to provide toe-holds for climbing salamanders. In the fall of 1993 these new salamander-friendly curbs were in place. Extra drains were also added to reduce the number of salamanders being washed down the road. The salamanders now climb the curbs with little difficulty.

The discovery highlighted the need for on going salamander research. University of Calgary graduate student Julie M. Fukumoto initially studied the salamander's characteristics. Julie found scattered, isolated populations of long-toed salamanders within Waterton. These were similar to findings elsewhere in Alberta where roadway mortality, loss of habitat , fish stocking and climate change were affecting other salamander populations.

A researcher bending over to inspect the salamander trap line Salamander Researcher
© Parks Canada

Also within Waterton, winter salting of park roads, the occasional release of chlorine from the Prince of Wales Hotel water tower and increased vehicle traffic during spring and fall seasons were adding to their woes.

Now a local favourite, this burrowing salamander with the especially long fourth toe on its hind feet, continues to traverse the busy Entrance Parkway. Witnessing an intent individual on its way to or from the lake is a unique experience. One can only comprehend the instinct that propels these remarkable amphibians along their journey.

Research on the life cycle of the salamander also continues. In the summer of 2001 researchers set up a fence and a series of traps along both sides of the road. Individual salamanders were caught, measured and weighed&then given a lift to other side.

In 2008, additional efforts were made to assist the salamanders crossing the road.