Greg LeClair’s fascination with amphibians started when his 7-year-old self glimpsed a shadowy figure scurrying across his driveway on a wet night in April. It was a spotted salamander – a magnificent 6-inch long shiny grey creature dotted with yellow spots. He soon learned that his best chance of seeing them was on rainy nights in April, especially on roads. And he discovered other creatures on these nights – wood frogs, spring peepers, blue-spotted salamanders, and more.
Greg’s appreciation for these creatures persisted. On February 28, 2023, he shared with CREA and BTLT’s audience how his interest eventually led him to build a statewide volunteer network that is helping amphibian populations in Maine. The following post is based on Greg’s presentation and his website. You can watch Greg’s presentation here or at the end of this post.
So what is ‘Big Night’ in the amphibian world? It’s a rainy night, often in April (in Maine) when amphibians start moving to their breeding habitat. It’s not necessarily just one night, it can be multiple nights, but the following conditions need to be present: rain; temps around 45 degrees; ground is (mostly) thawed.
Amphibians travel impressively long distances relative to their size. Unfortunately, roads are a big hazard during this migration which happens only in the dark. On average, amphibians have a 1 in 5 chance of being killed while crossing.
Greg started helping amphibians cross roads on Big Nights during high school and college, but quickly realized that, with roads everywhere, his impact was limited. He saw that similar efforts were taking place elsewhere and started thinking about how to create a broader network.
At 2018, while a student at Unity College, he started a group to cover several sites in Unity, and gained some publicity for their efforts from Bill Green and his film crew. But their efforts were still limited to Unity.
After graduating, using DEP data on the location of vernal pools and roads, he identified around 200 sites statewide at high risk of car/amphibian conflict. Vernal pools are important amphibian breeding habitat because they are ephemeral and contain no fish (which eat amphibian eggs).
Greg wanted to create a statewide network. However, busy with work and grad school, Greg realized he had to make Big Night data collection and amphibian assistance a self-guided experience with oversight. He created an automated system in which volunteers get trained online and collect data independently, supported by communities on social media.
2019 was the first statewide data collection effort. 23 volunteers covered 18 sites and recorded 376 amphibians. In that year, Greg also established goals for the project:
- Identify significant and vulnerable amphibian migration routes
- Provide direct relief of road mortality of amphibians (by physically helping them or using data to inform management solutions
- Provide opportunities for community members to participate in conservation and the natural sciences
In 2020, Big Night proved to be a Covid-safe activity — people were in small groups, outside, spaced well apart. They got some national news coverage in the New York Times and The Atlantic which drew in more volunteers. In 2020, 87 volunteers covered 69 sites and recorded 1646 amphibians. To make participation more accessible, they made kits of necessary gear available at locations around the state.
There was more growth in 2021, including hiring an intern. 316 volunteers covered 185 sites and recorded 5732 amphibians. They also discovered an unfortunate side effect of road salt in some rural areas experiencing high growth. High salt concentrations were impairing the ability of wood frogs and some spring peepers to regulate liquids, causing them to balloon with excessive water.
In 2022, Greg and his volunteers assessed whether they were meeting the goals set in 2019 and decided they needed to identify conservation priority areas. They identified the deadliest roads in the state, where — based on data collected — amphibian mortality exceeded 60%. After evaluating factors such as population size, presence of rare species, resilience of populations, and more, Greg proposed 30 sites as candidates for amphibian tunnels (under the road) to the Department of Transportation. The tunnels cost around $500,000, so prioritization is key.
In 2022, 361 volunteers covered 246 sites and recorded 8558 amphibians (representing an increase of over 2000% since 2019!). This work by Greg and volunteers has increased the public’s awareness of amphibians, enhanced understanding of Maine populations and their vulnerability, created a fun way for community members to participate in science, and begun a process of developing management solutions to better protect amphibians.
There are several things we can do to protect and maintain these populations. (We have good reasons to protect them. In addition to their important ecological role, scientists are studying wood frogs’ ability to freeze solid in winter with their heart stopped. Scientists want to learn whether we can understand this superpower in ways that could help us travel into deep space!)
- We can get trained/certified to collect data at a Big Night site in our community or assist someone who is certified. It takes 1 – 2 hours to review the information, take the test, and sign the safety waiver.
- We can avoid driving on rainy wet nights in April.
- We can support efforts to provide the necessary gear to people collecting the data.
- And, we can appreciate the beauty, complexity, and fragility of the natural world that is our home.
You can watch Greg’s presentation at the end of this post – he shares a lot more fascinating detail that is worth hearing. CREA is grateful to Greg for sharing his time and enthusiasm with us, and for his many years of work on behalf of Maine’s amphibians!
If you’re interested in participating in Big Night data collection as a certified volunteer, visit Maine’s Big Night website. It has all the relevant training
We recommend you explore the website Of Pools and People, which has a wealth of resources about vernal pools, amphibians, photos, and access to training and associated documents. Greg recommends the Maine Salamanders ID guide, produced by and usually available on coyotees.com. It is also available from Maine Audubon and Freeport Wild Bird Supply. You can track news related to Big Nights on Maine Big Night-Amphibian Migration Monitoring groups on Facebook and Twitter.
You can register here to be notified in the spring of 2023 if a certified volunteer is going out to collect data and is willing to host non-certified volunteers. It will likely be very short notice as Big Night is entirely weather-dependent. Take note that ultimately, safety is in your hands during your participation in Big Night. This will be reaffirmed by signing the safety liability waiver before participating at any site.
CREA has some high viz vests available to loan out and is looking into assembling some gear kits to loan out.