Sex and the salamander

          It all started as an elementary school rescue mission of the horny salamander.  These nocturnal crawlers are believed to be dashing across busy highways at night in order to mate in their breeding ground with willing salamanders on the other side of the road.  School children with buckets of water pick up these amphibians and cart them from one side of the road to the other so they can cavort with their kind unmolested.  Startled drivers often stop on seeing the flashlights and ask what is going on.  “The salamanders are mating,  the salamanders are mating” is the reply from these excited children. 

          Meanwhile the children’s supervisors, with clipboards in hand, are keeping a careful tally of the number of crawlers transported, and sadly, the number embossed onto the roadbed.  How unfortunate that this instinctual response to procreate can be permanently terminated.  So I ask and answer my own questions: Is it possible for salamanders to procreate without crossing the road? (yes).  Is crossing the road an essential part of the mating ritual? (no).  In their blind rush to mate are they aware that crossing the road is a hazardous affair? (no).  Such is the sex life of the salamander, the children, and their adult supervisors. 

          In an attempt to determine whether the horny salamander is experiencing a problem, I reviewed the postings at, and discovered the following panic-driven, if not acutely anxious reaction to the plight of all amphibians under the heading of 2008 Year of the Frog.

Amphibians are declining rapidly; species, genera, and even families are going extinct at an unprecedented rate. One third to one half of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction, with probably more than 120 already gone in recent years. Habitat loss is the major threat in terms of number of species affected, but the rapid dispersal of amphibian chytrid fungus is of major and urgent concern because of its tendency to drive species to extinction quickly. Scientists believe many more species may go extinct before we are able to act. But there is one option currently available which can save hundreds or even thousands of species if we act rapidly: captive survival assurance populations. Zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens play a crucial role in this solution, as they can provide ex-situ breeding grounds for the immediate conservation action needed before hundreds of species disappear.

          “Damn”, I said to myself, “120 species already extinct, and I should be supporting ex-situ breeding grounds so we don’t exterminate another 100 species of amphibians before we get up tomorrow morning.”  Then the rational side emerges, and I wonder: “Exactly how many endangered species of amphibians are there?  While they are going extinct at an alarming rate, possibly one species a day, it seems they are reproducing two species a day simply by crossing the road. ”

            Given the gravity of this tragic situation, and the crisis in the economy, is it any wonder that both small and large buckets of money are targeted to help salamanders survive road crossings in greater numbers.  President Obama’s environmental initiatives should certainly support shovel ready projects wherever salamanders need to cross the roads.  A $25,000 grant is already in hand in one state to engineer tunnels under the roads.  Total project cost is estimated at $350,000. 

          At no time in the reporting is it suggested how the tunnels will be constructed, how many tunnels might be proposed, and where they would work best to enhance the sex lives of the salamanders.  Once constructed, it would then be necessary to monitor the traffic through the tunnels and count the number of successful encounters on the other side of the road.  A measure of project effectiveness could require dozens or  even hundreds of monitors on both sides of each tunnel.  Each monitor would have a clipboard, and would be paid union wages to document salamander traffic through each tunnel in both directions.   The monitors would need training to identify males with smiles on their little faces, and females that were expecting. 

          Once the tunnels are completed and we return to business as usual, a serious number of unanticipated consequences are likely.  Research and common sense suggest that each consequence be tested.   Several are identified below in question form for further research, environmental engineering and construction using the unlimited funding freely available in every financial crisis.    

        1.     When confronted by a tunnel, will the horny salamander recognize that taking the tunnel is for his own good, or will he or she continue to take the road most travelled, and risk personal extinction?  This will require VISTA volunteers with clipboards on government payrolls  well into the future.  Hopefully the volunteers will be as bright as the salamanders they are asked to count and record. 

          2.     Assuming the salamanders continue to cross the road in large numbers, could a system of baffles be designed to gently guide the cute little creatures from the wild blue yonder to each of the tunnels?  Baffles would be required on both sides of the road to assist with the return trip after their encounter.  Because of the need for baffles, another study could be funded to engineer and construct baffles that would effectively guide the horny salamanders to the tunnels.  These baffles would lead naturally to another project of $50,000 in engineering, and another million in total project cost. 

          3.     As each tunnel is a collection point on both sides of the road, will the salamanders’ natural predators be assisted in their search for vittles?   If the tunnels work, a satisfying meal of succulent salamanders would be collected for predators on both sides of each tunnel.  Nocturnal predators, like owls, would not need to search far and wide for food, but could monitor each collection point, the entrance or exit to each tunnel.  Rather than to enhance the survival of salamanders, the tunnels could  reduce the number that survives to reproduce. 

          4.     Through serious academic research it is already known that large numbers of salamanders are cannibals.   Is it possible to determine whether the salamanders are running to mate, or running for their lives?  The baffles and the tunnels may have the opposite effect of preventing them from crossing the road at all, or shorten the chase for the cannibals.  Might this actually call for yet another study, engineering, and some structure which would allow normal salamanders to cross through the tunnels, and keep the cannibals from entering the hallowed breeding grounds?

          5.     If the horny salamander is anything like the black widow spider, shouldn’t the government study whether the cannibals mate first and eat later, or eat the mate they are about to mate with?  Is it possible these amphibians are eating each other into extinction?  

          The children in the above senseless scene are the only ones with functioning brain cells.  Their concern for all of God’s creatures, while misguided by their adult supervisors, is a touching display of thoughtful concern for survival which we all face.

          The academic crowd may be excused on the grounds that knowledge has raised all of humanity from the dark ages into an early period of marginal enlightenment. 

          When a third of a million dollars is proposed in a recession to enhance the survival of the salamander, this is the mark of pure idiocy.  If the salamander, or any amphibian, was actually endangered, all the above would still make little sense except to the brainless. 

          Of course, none of this actually matters, as it is spending money that drives the entire process.  When all the money is spent, the environmentalists will turn their attention to the Pinelands Gentians, the polar bear, or the snail darter.  With environmentalists in charge, all of natures wild creatures are better equipped to survive extinction than man. 

         Hello, Obama!  What an incredible collection of numbskulls and dingbats you have joined in governments across the country.  Is there any thrill presiding over the country’s pot of gold which was drained dry well before you took office?

          What is your next step?  I know!  Move the country deep into the United Nations, the only collection of dingbats capable of putting our own dingbats to shame. 

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