EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. (PIX11) — This Central New Jersey township has a very unique practice that underscores just how much wildlife is in suburban settings, how important it is to preserve it, and how the habits of creatures in the natural world are fascinating but delicate, and in need of protection. 

East Brunswick is home to the spotted salamander, among other amphibians. They have a very specific and ancient reproductive process that had been put in danger for many years by human activity. Now, however, that process has changed in a way that’s both unorthodox and productive. 

The salamanders spend most of the year on the east side of Beekman Road, hibernating in the moisture under the leaves and mud in the Ireland Brook Conservation Area forest. 

When the weather begins to feel like spring, however, a change occurs, as Liti Haramaty, of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission, pointed out.

“They wake up,” she said, describing the creatures’ behavior as milder conditions occur as winter fades away, “and [they] say, ‘Oh, it’s time to go to the pool.'”

Haramaty, who’s a scientist at Rutgers University as well as a township environment commission member, was talking about the vernal pool on the west side of Beekman Road.  

A vernal pool is a natural, shallow pond that’s deepest in spring. In the East Brunswick vernal pool, salamanders mate and lay eggs, after crawling 75 to 100 yards from their hibernating grounds. 

“They’ve been doing it for thousands of years,” Haramaty said. 

However, about 100 years ago, the township decided to put a road, Beekman Road, right in the middle of the salamanders’ crawling track. The road runs perpendicular to the path that the salamanders, hundreds of them, take to their breeding grounds. Those grounds, the vernal pool, is very specialized to the amphibians’ reproductive needs. It’s wet in the spring and evaporates as the months get warmer.

 “The advantage of doing all that in a pool that dries in the summer is there are no fish, which are predators of the tadpoles,” said Haramaty. 

The salamanders lay big bunches of eggs, hundreds of them, much like frogs do. Also like frog reproduction, the salamander eggs turn into tadpoles before becoming fully grown. 

For years, the yearly journey they make to the vernal pools was interrupted by roadway traffic in the evening and overnight hours, when the salamanders usually make the trek. But about 20 years ago, a local field biologist, David Moskowitz, asked the township to close the road during salamander season. 

It complied, as Robert Zuckerman, the economic development officer for the township, pointed out in an interview. 

“It’s government working for the people,” he said, as well as the amphibians.

“They’re residents too,” he added. “They all live here.”  

Many humans also live in the area. East Brunswick has a population of nearly 50,000, and the closure is meant to serve them in many ways.

“People come from all over the state to see this amazing thing that’s happening in their backyard,” Haramaty said.

She added that the salamander crossing occurs around the same time that local frogs and toads tend to carry out a similar ritual, crossing to the vernal pool. 

The process is all the more important now, she said. The road closures begin over a four-to six-week period when springlike weather conditions arrive. That used to be in March, but this year, the first road closure was in mid-February, and the starting date has continued to move earlier and earlier on the calendar. 

With the warmer conditions earlier in the year, a certain nuisance becomes more common. The amphibians’ breeding ritual helps the community by reducing the nuisance, Haramaty said. 

“What breeds in water in the spring?” she asked. “Mosquitoes. Who eats mosquitoes? Tadpoles.”

She said that thanks to the road closures, there’s one additional positive development. 

“We’ve been seeing more young salamanders, which is a great sign,” because it means that their population is growing. “If it’s good for salamanders, it’s good for people.”