For the Birmingham News:
Fellow commuter: The salamander

News staff writer

Once a year, during the first full moon after the first warm rain, the spotted salamander makes its way down the north face of Shades Mountain in Homewood. It is heading toward the wetlands adjacent to Shades Creek. But before it can mate and lay its eggs, the salamander must cross the road - specifically South Lakeshore Drive.

Homewood resident Don Stewart is working to make sure travelers along that road, which runs between the National Guard armory and Homewood High School parallel to Lakeshore Drive, are aware of the salamander's annual midnight migration. Stewart recently convinced Homewood city officials to install "salamander crossing" signs on each end of the road. The signs will be yellow and feature a black salamander drawn by Stewart, who owns an art gallery in Homewood. The sign will be installed in the next month or so. The signs are not meant to make people stop and look both ways, but to make them more aware of their environment, he said. "I wanted to take the opportunity while they're still here for the city to be aware of them," he said. "With development on Shades Mountain, there are not as many as there used to be."

Homewood is extremely rare in that it is an urban environment where the spotted salamander has survived, he said. Spotted salamanders, formally known as Ambystoma maculatum, are common from Canada to Mississippi. They are an inky black with orange or yellow spots and gray bellies. They can grow to 8 or 9 inches long, on a diet of worms. "They look like they're made of tar with orange paint dripped on them," Stewart said. Stewart said the salamanders, which live under leaves, rocks and fallen trees most of the year, hang around Shades Creek for a couple of days after breeding and don't return until the following year. This year, the salamanders made their migration during the last week of January, he said. "They've been doing it as long as we've had a mountain," Stewart said.

They cross South Lakeshore Drive at a spot equidistant between the armory and the high school. Stewart said there's not too much of a problem with the salamanders getting squished as they cross the road because most of the traffic on South Lakeshore Drive is during the day. In Amherst, Mass., where there is a huge salamander population, the city has dug tunnels under the road for salamanders. If you walk along Shades Creek at the right time, you may see the salamander eggs in the water in a gelatinous clump, unlike the long string of eggs that frogs deposit. The salamander eggs hatch into tadpoles, which mature into salamanders by spring. The youngsters crawl up the mountain to join their relatives and return the next year to begin the cycle anew. Stewart said Homewood could use its spotted salamanders as a marketing tool. "Salamanders are like pandas. They don't do a darn thing, but they make you smile," he said. "Homewood is sitting on a gold mine."

City Councilwoman Jackie Langlow, after approving the salamander crossing signs, said, "We need T-shirts. I'm serious." Councilman Walter Jones was proud of his affirmative vote. "Thirty years from now, someone will look back and see I voted for a salamander crossing," he said. "They won't remember anything else, but they'll remember that."

Stewart said he didn't know of another urban place in the South where salamanders were forced to migrate across a road to find a place to mate. Stewart majored in biology and art at Birmingham-Southern College and gave up a career in medicine to become an artist.