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A juvenile Jefferson salamander crosses Stouffville Road in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Oct. 19.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

One drizzly evening last week, a man wearing a floppy hat and camo pants walked slowly along a darkened road north of Toronto, choosing carefully where he placed his feet. Holding a flashlight, he scanned the wet asphalt for one of Canada’s more obscure endangered species.

Jefferson salamanders are not by any stretch the loveliest of Mother Nature’s children. Small, grey, clammy and bug-eyed, they spend their lives wriggling about in ponds or skulking under dead leaves in the forest. Most people don’t even know they exist.

Yet David Lawrie has spent years studying and defending them. His dedication to the lowly amphibians is so great, in fact, that he helped persuade a car-dependent municipality to stop traffic on a major road on their behalf.

Every year around this time, workers from York Region put orange-and-black traffic cones across Stouffville Road in the suburb of Richmond Hill whenever it rains at night and the salamanders are migrating. Signs instruct vehicles to turn back: The road is closed till morning.

That is when Mr. Lawrie, a research scientist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, takes to the road with his flashlight.

Forty-one per cent of Earth’s amphibians deemed threatened with extinction, assessment finds

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Stouffville Road is intermittently closed off between Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street during the Jefferson salamander migration period.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

This year has been slim pickings. He went out three times in the first part of the month but saw only one Jefferson salamander, and it was dead. With the closure window due to end Oct. 29, this was one of his last chances to count and observe them. He kept his flashlight beam shallow, hoping the shadows cast by the creatures would reveal them.

Mr. Lawrie, now 50, grew up in the Toronto area, the son of a father who worked as a data analyst and a mother who taught school and stayed home with the kids. When he was small his grandfather took him to ponds to look at the frogs and insects. Mr. Lawrie would fish clusters of tiny eggs from the water and take them home. They hatched into strange, prehistoric-looking looking things with glistening skin: salamanders.

The science bug stayed with him. He earned a couple of degrees and started joining nature groups. When he went to work for the conservation authority, saving salamanders became part of his remit.

The world has about 800 species of salamander, an order that also includes newts, mud puppies and hellbenders. Some are big: The Chinese giant salamander can grow to two metres. Most are small and slender. They look like lizards without the scales.

Many contain toxins that make them less appealing to predators. Some, like the Jefferson, will present their tails to attackers, as if offering an appetizer. When the attacker bites it off, they skitter away. The tail grows back.

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Geologist David Lawrie searches for Jefferson salamanders along Stouffville Road on Oct. 19.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Canada has 22 species. The Jeffersons have been listed as endangered since 2011. They live in woodlands, preferring places with lots of hemlocks and ferns. They eat ants, slugs, spiders and other forest delicacies. Their droppings and, eventually, their corpses help the forest flourish.

In the first blush of spring, they come out of trees and head to a nearby pond to breed, travelling on rainy nights when the temperature has reached five or six degrees. In the fall, the young head to woods from pond, often taking up residence in the burrow of some small mammal for the winter.

This was a fine strategy before modern humans came along, but now the Toronto region is criss-crossed by roads. About 1.2 million animals a year are killed by speeding traffic, countless Jeffersons among them.

To track their movements, Mr. Lawrie and his fellow scientists injected some with fluorescent dye. They equipped others with tiny, surgically implanted transmitters.

One population emerges from the woods near a mailbox on a side street running off Stouffville Road. A few years ago, Mr. Lawrie started wondering about the possibility of banning traffic for periods during peak migration. It seemed far-fetched. Up here in car country, “no one wants to close a road, particularly a big road like this,” he says.

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A juvenile Red Black salamander crosses Stouffville Road.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

He talked it over with Gerry Sullivan, an environmentalist with York Region. Mr. Sullivan ran it up the flagpole. Somewhat to his surprise, says Mr. Sullivan, his superiors said yes, “let’s try it – and the world didn’t end.”

Since 2019, road crews have been closing the stretch between Leslie Street and Bayview Avenue a few times in the spring and a few in the fall, depending on the weather. Every afternoon during the migration window, about 20 officials – weather forecasters, traffic-flow experts, communications staff – hold a meeting to decide whether to order a closure.

Twenty people meeting over a salamander. It seems like a kind of progress.

But drivers aren’t crazy about the idea. If motorists knew Mr. Lawrie’s name, many would curse it.

Some get out of their cars to move the traffic cones and blast on through. “People will do anything to save themselves a couple of minutes drive,” Mr. Lawrie says. Their tires turn jaywalking salamanders to mush.

The long-term plan is to put a tunnel under the road so that the salamanders can make the trip in peace. In the meantime, the closures will continue and Mr. Lawrie will keep going on salamander hunts.

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Mr. Lawrie takes a photo of a Jefferson salamander crossing Stouffville Road.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Last week’s outing did not seem promising at first. After almost an hour, it began to look as if it was not his night. Then, near the brow of a hill, he glimpsed something moving: a Jefferson salamander. No, two Jefferson salamanders, both juveniles.

One was about the size of an index finger, the other a pinky – the beginnings of a new generation. “These guys are the future,” Mr. Lawrie said.

Frozen in Mr. Lawrie’s flashlight beam, the smaller one seemed reluctant to resume its journey. Mr. Lawrie crouched down and gave it a gentle nudge. With a twisting, sliding salamander gait, it made its way to the edge of the road and from there to the darkness of the woods.

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