The Blog

Tunnels of Love

A group of Stanford environmentalists try to save the California tiger salamander--by building tunnels under roadways for them.

11:00 PM, Nov 24, 2003 • By NICOLE TOPHAM
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STANFORD CAMPUS BIOLOGISTS and students have teamed up in a daring new rescue effort--to save the tiger salamanders. Natives of the Stanford area, the salamanders migrate yearly to nearby Lake Lagunita to breed. The migration route takes them across the busy streets of Junipero Serra Boulevard and Campus Drive East. Some of the salamanders become road kill, which greatly concerns biologists, since California tiger salamanders are nearly an endangered population.

Their solution? Salamander tunnels! Construction crews are currently working to install three metal tunnels under the road so salamanders can move on to breed in peace and safety. One tunnel was installed in 2001 as a test for effectiveness. The Stanford community got the idea from the Germans, who have built tunnels for badgers, and the British, who did the same for toads. In fact, the new tunnels have come specially ordered from England. Other scientists in California have installed salamander tunnels as well.

Alas, the tunnel idea is not foolproof. After all, how do you convince a salamander to use an out-of-the-way tunnel when it is more convenient to cross the road?

When installing the first tunnel, biologists used ridged pipes cut in half along the roadside; but that deterrence failed after a few months. As part of the new phase, they are creating a perpendicular drop-off from the road to the shoulder. They hope this will discourage the salamanders from climbing onto the road and encourage them to use the tunnels instead. It is a major improvement from the current arrangement, where students and staff patrol the area with buckets on rainy nights and act as ferry boats for the salamanders.

In addition to the tunnels, the biologists are creating nine new ponds and waterways in the Stanford foothills so that the salamanders will have someplace other than Lake Lagunita to breed. The biologists say the habitat will serve other flora and fauna as well, but their primary hope is that it helps increase the salamander population. Dr. Sean Anderson, head of the salamander project, claims that "compared to historic numbers, the population is definitely down," although he admits some might hold a different view: In recent years, Stanford's salamander population has remained steady at 500 to 2,400 adults each year.

The tunnel project will cost around $100,000, which Stanford will fund in toto. "It's Stanford's way of trying to be a good steward over the land," says Anderson.

The ponds and tunnels will soon be finished and the salamanders can live and breed in safety--if they so choose. One wonders what Stanford will choose as its next environmental project. Perhaps overpasses for the squirrels?

Nicole Topham, a former intern at The Weekly Standard, is a writer in California.