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Fewer cars on the road during lockdowns was good news for frogs and salamanders

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Wildlife biologist Greg LeClair has been obsessed with amphibians since he was a kid, when one rainy day, a black and yellow spotted salamander stumbled into his driveway in Maine.

GREG LECLAIR: I had never seen a salamander so big and brightly colored before. And that was just so exciting to me.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

You see, every spring in the eastern U.S., amphibians like the spotted salamander and the wood frog migrate. Some occasionally get lost, as they travel half a mile or more from their forest homes to seasonal puddles and ponds to breed.

LECLAIR: Basically, if you were to put this in a proportional sense, it's equal to the migration of wildebeests in the Serengeti happening in our backyards that we're just completely oblivious to most years.

MCCAMMON: But as LeClair got older, he had an awful realization about his beloved study subjects.

LECLAIR: I would see just tons of them getting hit by cars. And it didn't take long for me to realize that this was something that was pretty problematic.

SHAPIRO: LeClair is now a graduate student at the University of Maine. And for the last four years, he's organized a legion of volunteers to canvass the roads of his state, surveying for amphibians and plucking them out of harm's way if they can.

MCCAMMON: And in the spring of 2020, at the height of pandemic shutdowns, the volunteers noticed something unusual. They found only half as many frogs crushed on Maine's roads compared to previous years.

LECLAIR: 2020 was a great year to be an amphibian, at least in recent history, because mortality rates declined by about 50%.

SHAPIRO: Those numbers track with data from Maine's Department of Transportation, which found a steep drop in the number of deer, turkeys and moose killed by cars and trucks over the same time period. LeClair's research appears in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

MCCAMMON: The bad news is, LeClair says, is lots of drivers are now back on the road. This year's survey marked a return to pre-pandemic numbers of froggy roadkill. And though he knows spotted salamanders and wood frogs may not be everyone's favorite animals...

LECLAIR: Once people see that you can love another animal that isn't feathered or furry, it really opens a lot of doors, especially when you start understanding the story of these animals. These are tiny things that have been doing this for eons that are suddenly meeting their demise under the tires of our vehicles. And most people don't even know they're hitting them.

SHAPIRO: LeClair hopes his work will inspire drivers to be a little more mindful on the road, as frogs and other amphibians navigate this very real-life game of Frogger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.