Ontario Drivers Take a Detour for Salamanders

The endangered Jefferson salamander is ensured safe passage in Burlington, Ontario, for several weeks in March. Justin Meissen/Flickr

An endangered salamander is getting a helping hand from drivers in one town on Lake Ontario. For roughly three weeks in March, drivers in Burlington simply don't use one section of a major road in the city of 184,000, and it's all for the benefit of the Jefferson salamander.

The Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) isn't a large amphibian. Per Canada's Species at Risk Public Registry, adults measure between 2.4 and 4.1 inches (60 and 104 millimeters) long, with a tail roughly that length as well. Their toes are on the long side for their body, and their skin ranges from gray to dark brown.

These salamanders are considered endangered in Canada due to lack of suitable habits, including forests that have fishless bodies of water, most of which are ephemeral ponds. These ponds are where the amphibians breed, with females leaving eggs nearby in early spring. The larvae transform in the early summer and normally leave the pond by August. The salamanders spend the winter in leaves, logs or soil.

Breeding, however, is dependent on the formation of these ponds in the salamanders' preferred areas and the ease of access to such areas. Destruction of these areas and development of things like roads have severely hindered the Jefferson salamanders' ability to breed.

Enter Burlington, Ontario. Since 2012, the city has a 0.6-mile (1-kilometer) stretch of King Road running from the base of the Niagara Escarpment to Mountain Brow Road in for most of, if not all of, March. This allows the salamanders to cross the road safely to reach their breeding grounds on the other side. The closure is so routine now that the city's press release contains two short paragraphs about the road closure and four paragraphs about the salamander itself.

"Together with Conservation Halton, the city of Burlington is very proud of its efforts to aid in the survival and recovery of this rare species," Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said in the statement. "Since the first full road closure in 2012, there has been no road mortality of Jefferson salamanders observed by Conservation Halton staff during the road closure period. We are happy to play a small role in protecting the salamanders while raising awareness about their endangered status."

And it's not as if the salamanders are making an epic migration. They are literally just crossing the street from the forested areas where they spent the winter to get to the ponds on the other side of King Road.

Prior to the road closures, Conservation Halton estimated that salamander deaths were "significant" in number, according to a 2017 CBC News report.

"We can say with 100 percent certainty that there has been no mortality of Jefferson salamanders during this period on the road as they cross," Hassaan Basit, the chief administrative officer of Conservation Halton, told CBC in 2017.

It may be a minor inconvenience to drivers, but it's a huge boon to this endangered species.