Sign of the Salamander

Last May 4 a brushfire burned through a patch of woods that Trav and I often pass on our walks, between Island Children’s School and the school bus parking lot behind the West Tisbury School. Six weeks later, I blogged about how the undergrowth was coming back: “Resilience.”

By fall only the scorched tree trunks and the occasional charred branch or log testified to the passing of fire. I kept an eye on those woods, though, fascinated by how quickly the scrub was reasserting itself.

salamander 3BIn early December, when most of the green was gone from the woods or dulled by approaching winter, I spotted something new: a little red flag. Of course I stomped through the brush and brambles to check it out.

The little red flag was marking a square bit of board with “3B” written on it. What was this? There’s been a lot of new construction in the neighborhood lately, so I wondered if someone was planning to build a house here. Not likely, I thought: there’s no vehicle access except through the school bus parking lot.

Then I noticed other red flags. Each one marked a similar sign but with a different number and letter combination. The numbers went up at least to 8, the letters to G. 1A, 3B, 4D . . . Clearly I was looking at a grid of some kind. What was it for? A school project, perhaps?

The weeks passed. Leaves concealed or half concealed some of the boards, but they were definitely still there.

salamander 5AThis morning Travvy was following some scent and I followed him a few yards into the woods. The first sign I found had a message on it:  “Salamander Survey don’t touch.”

The same message had been printed on nearby signs as well — maybe on all the signs, but I didn’t check them out.

Salamanders are traditionally associated with fire. Could this salamander survey have anything to do with last spring’s fire? Who was conducting it? Were there really salamanders in these woods? Maybe someone was trying to find out.

When I got home, a Google search on “salamander survey” got some 1,700 hits, including several academic papers and news about salamander surveys in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and other places. I love stumbling into worlds I never knew existed, and clearly there was a world out there in which salamanders are surveyed and the surveys are a big deal.

On one website a fellow in Tennessee wrote that he’d come across a story that said that Georgia was #1 in the nation in salamanders. “How,” he wondered, “do they know which state has the most salamanders? Does someone from the federal government go around in each state, looking under rocks and counting them?”

I don’t know either, but I bet it has something to do with 3B, 5A, and the rest of the grid I found in the woods.

Adding “Martha’s Vineyard” to my “salamander survey” search turned up a 2012 Vineyard Gazette mention of a salamander survey at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, off the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. No surprise there: if anyone on Martha’s Vineyard knows about salamanders and surveys thereof, they’d have to have some connection to Felix Neck.

Well, now I’m curious. If the information doesn’t come to me, I might have to go out looking for it.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Sign of the Salamander

  1. westerner54 says:

    I just love this. So, I’m guessing someone comes through regularly and counts the salamanders they find in each grid? I think that salamanders are an indicator species and they are one of the first to disappear when things change, but I may just be making that up. I’m gonna do a little research myself, by jove. Let us know what else you find out, please!


    • Salamanders do seem to be an indicator species, at least in certain habitats. Several of the websites mentioned wetlands, which the little wooded area near me isn’t. I am wondering if the fire last spring makes this spot particularly interesting. I’m also wondering if there are other grids around the island. I’d never have noticed this one if I didn’t walk by there so often. I will definitely pass on whatever I find out!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Helen Green says:

    Salamanders on MV? Who would have thought?


  3. Sharon Stewart says:

    Interesting! I edited a wonderful book on the fossil salamanders of North America for IUP. My style sheet (mostly 37 pages of verified spellings of uncommon words and proper names) contained 17 pages of genus and species names alone. I knew next to nothing about salamanders before I began.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it? I hadn’t given much thought to salamanders, though I really like the word. Then this morning I got lost in a Wikipedia article about them. I might have to find out who’s doing this survey, if this blog and Facebook don’t smoke ’em out.


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