The Jefferson salamander, an endangered amphibian found only in southern Ontario, has begun to emerge from the ground along a small stretch of the Niagara escarpment and has been dodging cars as it crosses the lone road on its annual march to breeding ponds.
Starting Thursday, the salamanders will not have to worry about traffic as the city of Burlington, Ont., will shut down about a kilometre of King Road for three weeks to allow for their safe passage, the fifth consecutive year the city has taken such measures.
"I'm certainly proud of the program," said Burlington's Mayor Rick Goldring. "As humans, it's the least we can do for these little guys."
The program has had success, according to Conservation Halton, which studies the rare amphibians that can live up to 30 years.
"We can say with 100 per cent certainty, that there has been no mortality of Jefferson salamanders during this period on the road as they cross," said Hassaan Basit, the chief administrative officer of Conservation Halton.
The organization's ecologists have been out looking for the rare salamanders — which are 12 to 20 centimetres long, brown or grey in colour and move only at night — as the sign that the annual breeding migration has begun.
Basit said they saw a few last week and notes that once the March rains begin to fall and warmer weather arrives, the salamanders wake up and head toward the temporary ponds that appear in the spring before drying up in mid-summer.
"It's amazing because they show a really strong fidelity to return to their birth pond and so they are quite determined to reach those ponds," Basit said.
The problem is that the ponds are on one side of King Road and the salamanders dig in for the winter on the other side.
"There's lots of 'why did the salamander cross the road jokes?'" Basit said with a sigh.
Before the city began its practice of closing the road, the salamanders were dying at a "significant" rate, he said.
While the group doesn't have a population number for the salamanders, Basit believes the program is working. In addition to the lack of dead amphibians on the road, ecologists have found Jefferson salamander eggs in the ponds, showing the creatures have at least made it across the road.
"I think the city has been fantastic," Basit said. "I think they can be a model for a lot of other municipalities — they've been bold with their decision."
The mayor said Burlington's council voted unanimously to close the road back in 2011.
"We decided to go down this path and everyone on council, all of my colleagues, said 'yeah, let's do it,'" Goldring said. "It was a pretty simple decision."
Stephen Murphy, an ecology professor at the University of Waterloo, said road closures are an effective tool to help salamander population numbers bounce back.
"There's pretty good evidence over the years from southern Ontario that if you close off a busy road, the Jefferson salamander has a better survival rate," Murphy said.
Kitchener, Ont., closed a road for several years for the Jefferson salamander migration as an area was being developed, he said, until the city and developer agreed to shut down the road permanently and make a new one further from their habitat.
"I'm surprised that people haven't resisted this, it's an inconvenience to close a road, but people seem to be quite sympathetic to it," Murphy said. "It's really quite commendable."
The Jefferson salamander is protected at both the provincial and national levels and was added to Ontario's endangered species list in 2011.
There has also been other work to help the salamander. York Region north of Toronto has built a series of tunnels under roads to help increase survival of the rare amphibian, although Murphy said those haven't been as effective as road closures because salamanders don't like dark tunnels.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press