Toads get a hand in Philadelphia

March 18, 2009 3:42:34 PM PDT
How did the tiny toad cross the busy city road? Not easily, thanks to increasing development and traffic near its habitat.

Dozens of neighborhood volunteers are gearing up to make this year's trip safer for the hopping herpetiles, which are killed by cars in large numbers during their spring breeding migration from woods to a reservoir across a Philadelphia street.

For the first time, a coordinated strategy is in place involving about 50 volunteers who will keep an eye out for the migration to begin and set up city-approved traffic detours when the one-inch toads take to the road.

Lisa Levinson, who spearheaded the effort, said she got the idea when she was coming home from work and saw dozens of toads crossing the road.

"People were just driving through and running over them," she said Monday. "Something needed to be done, and it's been really amazing how everyone has come together."

Hundreds of toads leave the 350-acre Schuylkill Center For Environmental Education, a preserved woodland tract in northwest Philadelphia, and some adjacent woods between mid-March and late-April. The migration to the Roxborough Reservoir to mate typically happens on just one or two evenings, when weather is warm and damp, and at a few select spots.

"Ecologically, it's called fragmentation: There are remnants of forest everywhere but they're surrounded by development and roads," said Schuylkill Center director Dennis Burton. "There needs to be some kind of human intervention to get them to their mating grounds and their habitat."

For the past couple of weeks, volunteer "toad spotters" have been spending several hours each evening at the toads' favorite crossing points. When the amphibians decide to make their move, the spotters will contact authorities, send text messages to summon other volunteers and close the toad crossings to traffic until the creatures have hopped their way to safer ground.

"Who'd have ever thought I'd be out there doing something like this," Janet Schillinger, who does a toad watching shift for about an hour each evening with her neighbor Jackie Mellor, said with a laugh.

"Thirty years ago there was nothing here, but now we have lots of traffic and development," she said. "We live here because there's wildlife ... that's why we're doing this."

Beyond the obvious humane reasons for protecting the toads, they're also very important for the food chain, Burton said.

"Everything is connected," Burton said. "Take out part, including any of the critters, and you're going to have a change." Levinson got permission from the city's Streets Department to temporarily detour traffic during the toads' trek.

She said volunteers will man barricades, count migrating toads and hand out informational brochures to passers-by. There will be detour signs posted, along with posters made by children at the local elementary school urging drivers to be kind to the toads, Levinson said.

"The goal is that this will be an annual event," she said. "It's also a way just to make us all more mindful that there's wildlife around us."

How to Get Involved:

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education says it is looking for committee members and community volunteers. For more information:

Call Lisa Levinson at 215-620-2130, or send her an email.

On the web:

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

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