“Salamander Sky” Book Cultivates Citizen Science to Fight Climate Change

BY ON May 8, 2018

Salamander Sky book cover

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” ―Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

My daughter walked into the kitchen today while I was listening to NPR, and listened to a story about scientists in New Hampshire who discovered new archaeological sites from colonial times. These sites are getting washed away because of climate change. She sputtered, “Oh, great,” with her ever growing ability at subtle sarcasm.

So much of what our kids hear about climate change is gloom and doom. And with increased rates of infectious diseases and asthmaclimate refugees, and histories and habitats getting destroyed or forever changed, as parents we need to teach our kids to love and defend our planet. But how can we do that without teaching them to marvel at the wonders of nature?

One way we cultivate wonder, joy and curiosity in our home is to participate in citizen science. We help species or habitats in need. During springtime, one incredible experience is to venture out into the great salamander migration that takes place from Canada to the tip of Florida.

The coming of spring here in Vermont means rain, and lots of it. My daughters and I pull on our boots, raincoats, grab our flashlights and head outside to see if our salamander friends are out and trying to cross the dirt road in front of our house. Often, we go out late in the evening, and the kids get to stay up a bit.

It is a special night.

Citizen science in action - helping a spring salamander

Citizen science in action – helping a spring salamander

My daughters and I scan the roadways for shiny eyes, small slick bodies, and movement. The light from our flashlights scatters in the rain. When you find one, a rush of excitement comes for this living creature with bright yellow spots, making its way across the road – a spotted salamander. Or maybe an eastern newt, in its bright orange red eft phase? The bright colors are a delight to winter weary eyes. Then we gently carry it with wet hands across the road carefully and safely in the direction it was heading (toward pools and ponds). We notice the tiny toes, the round eyes, the long, sleek tail – something worth protecting, as these salamanders are a key part of the forest ecosystem that can protect us from climate change.

But in Appalachian Mountains, hotter, drier weather attributed to climate change is causing salamanders to readapt. They burn energy faster in the heat and shrink in size. According to a study published in Global Change Biology. Six species of the salamanders are now 2–18% smaller than they were in the 1950s, as they adjust to their new climate.

Spotted salamanders only come out on a handful of nights here in Vermont. They crawl out from burrows, leaf litter and tree root homes, to travel to the vernal pools and ponds where they mate and lay their eggs. Experiencing their life cycle in action, and science in motion, is something my kid and I love. Cars can hit this vulnerable species as they try to cross to pools and ponds. So we help them.

a spring salamander

This springtime migration inspired me to write a picture book about these secretive crossings, called Salamander Sky (illustrated by Meg Sodano and published by Green Writers Press). It’s about ten year old April, waiting for her time to help the spotted salamanders with her scientist mom. This book, coupled with taking part in the salamander crossing, can help build a love of nature, an awareness of the salamander life cycle, and the pure excitement of having helped another creature survive.
While my daughter sometimes sighs at all the bad news about climate change, her eyes also sparkle with life when she sees her first salamander of the season, fueling her love of nature and passion for protecting all species that walk the earth and are threatened by climate change.
(For teachers, I have also recently created an Educator’s Guide and a website for using Salamander Sky in project based learning, which you can find at katyfarber.com).

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TOPICS: Climate Change, Science, Tennessee, Vermont