When you're only three inches long, crossing the street is a life-threatening trek, so to help the salamanders along, East Brunswick, in cooperation with South Brunswick, has for the last 11 years closed a number of roads, saving hundreds of amphibian lives and giving people who come from all over central New Jersey a chance to safely watch nature in action.
"It was an amazing night, so many salamanders and so many people," David Moskowitz, president of the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission, said after the migration Tuesday night. "Reports from the road suggest there were hundreds crossing through the night, and there must have been well over 100 people there" to watch.
Arnold Horowitz of East Brunswick took his 11-year-old son, Billy, after seeing information about the salamander migration on Facebook.
"Before tonight, I thought it was a joke," Horowitz said. "Not anymore."
Billy thought salamanders "are cool."
Michelle Eden of Spotswood had her 6-year-old granddaughters with her on Beekman Road.
"I've always wanted to see them crossing, but I never got the chance," Eden said. "I decided today I was going. This is the first time I've walked the road."
Closing the road can be the difference between a healthy mating season and roadkill, Moskowitz said.
"It's evident we're getting a lot more egg masses in the pools than before we began closing Beekman Road," he said. "We're also getting a lot of young female salamanders crossing."
He said that last year, there were even egg masses in vernal pools that haven't been used in years.
Salamanders spend most of the year in forests, but they must find standing water to mate and hatch eggs after the first warm spring rains.
McKenzie Hall, a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, runs a program in northern and parts of central New Jersey that sends volunteers to areas where the amphibians are known to migrate.
"Most of those areas don't have road closures because many are out in the country where there are fewer options for detours," she said. "We will shuttle them across the road as part of the rescue." On a typical crossing, some sites could have 100 to 200 amphibians crossing an hour, Hall said. They include spotted and Jefferson salamanders and peep and wood frogs.
Hall said her volunteers were working at six sites, two in Passaic, two in Sussex, and two in Warren Counties. Volunteers used to close roads at the sites, but stopped about six or seven years ago because the detours might take motorists to another amphibian crossing, she said.
After their time in the pool, the salamanders cross back into the forest, but Moskowitz and Hall said that journey isn't as perilous because they go back individually, not all at once.
It takes the eggs one to two months to hatch and another month before the young grow into adults and go into the forest.
Moskowitz said the pools in East Brunswick were deeper and none of them dried out before the salamanders could hatch.
"So many vernal pools have been lost in New Jersey to farming and development," he said. "That's why it's so important to protect what we have."