Maine Community Science Initiative continues to grow and save amphibians

Photo courtesy Greg LeClair

Community science is a fast-growing approach to involving people in nature and providing big, important data to scientists and policy makers. Rather than relying on a few scientists to collect data, which is an enormous and time-consuming task, community science projects use an army of volunteers with varying levels of familiarity with science – from kindergarten children to retired seniors. – can greatly extend research efforts to understand larger issues.

Throughout the northeastern United States, frogs and salamanders make annual migrations to and from their breeding wetlands in the spring. These migrations tend to be intense, with most movements occurring within just a few nights; their movements are entirely restricted by a set of “goldilocks” conditions which provide a sufficiently warm and moist environment for them to move about safely. That means nighttime temperatures above ~45F and enough rain to wet the ground, and when these factors come together, movement can be explosive!

Unfortunately, this can create major problems for migrating amphibians. First, many have to migrate by road to get to their breeding wetlands; this results in many vehicles getting hit (if you’ve never noticed a migrating salamander while driving, you’re not alone!). Combine the problem of many of them migrating side by side, and it becomes possible for a single poorly timed car to set a population’s doomsday clock closer to midnight.

spotted salamander

Spotted Salamander, photo courtesy of Greg LeClair

2022 was the fifth season of Maine Big Night, a statewide community science project aimed not only at ensuring that as many of these animals as possible survive their crossing of the road, but also at collecting data for research and management projects. The project is managed by hundreds of volunteers, the number of which increases every year. In 2022 alone, over 400 people have been certified and 225 have submitted data as primary data loggers. That’s almost double the number of people who submitted data in the previous four years!

In the scientific world, and especially in the community science world, special care must be taken to ensure that only quality data is used in analysis (although volunteer scientists often produce data with the same scientific rigor than professional scientists!). After the end of each season, we review our data submissions to compile those that meet data quality standards. Although we are still at this stage for the 2022 season, the results should not deviate much from the figures below.

This year, volunteers recorded data on 8,507 amphibians; that’s more than the previous four years combined! Of these, 2,522 were found dead, giving us an approximate death rate of 29.65%. It’s higher than usual; in recent years it has fluctuated between around 15 and 25%. Why this death rate is so much higher is unknown, but it could be due to variations in how surveys were conducted (who conducted the survey, where was interviewed, etc.) or actual changes in the environment, such as more cars on the road.


Photo courtesy Greg LeClair

Interestingly, we were short of a few species this year; we had no sightings of mink frogs, northern two lined salamanders or northern dusky salamanders – we’ve had a handful in recent years! We did however get a confirmed report of spring salamanders on the roads in Newry but unfortunately this was not submitted as an MBN sighting. This would be a first for the project. Definitely, something to watch for next season!

With five years of data collection under our belt, we are beginning to explore how best to leverage our data. The federal infrastructure bill, which passed Congress last fall, contains $350 million specifically for wildlife crossing structures, structures that could potentially reduce the roadkill problem to nearly from zero in these hot spots. Working with the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), we plan to use our data to find overlap with MDOT needs (maintenance, other wildlife road kill hotspots, etc.) and use this federal money to install wildlife crossings across the state. These infrastructure solutions may take years, but the process of creating a more wildlife-friendly landscape has begun!

Here’s to a very successful 2022 Maine Big Night season!

by Greg LeClair, founder of Maine Big Night and a 2022 Brookie Prize Winner

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