FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/12/2010

Cold-blooded Passions: The Salamanders’ Trek for Love

May 5, 2010                                                                     Volume 3 Issue 9
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Dorothy Boorse
“I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more,” says the song, “just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door.”
“Whoa,” I think. “That’s some man, and not a cold-blooded man. That would definitely take warm blood.”
Cold-blooded is not usually associated with things we like. “Cold-blooded” people kill, without caring, and get books written about their passionless and therefore inexplicable, crimes. Warm-blooded, however, is right where it’s at. You wouldn’t call a koala “cold-blooded” but a snake is. Lambs, chicks, and manatees—poster children for all that is delightful in the animal world—are  “warm-blooded.”
But are cold-blooded animals really passionless? I’m not convinced, if passion can make you take risks, do dangerous things, and walk a thousand miles to be with the one you want.
One Monday night last month, for instance, was the Big Night, the annual carnival of the amphibian world, the evening when the wood frogs and the male mole salamanders trekked through the wild matrix from their snug forest litter home to the pools where they would procreate. If the cold-blooded world could have a festival of passion, this would be it.
While you and I slept, wood frogs hopped in droves through woods and grass, the males first to arrive and calling, “I’m here, I’m here!” with a sound remarkably similar to the gabbling of ducks. Such calling continued through the next few weeks.
The frogs returned, not just to small ponds but to the very pond where they were hatched. They bullied other males away from the females in a frenzy of pairings. Eventually, the small males, clinging to the big stoic females, sang their love and helped create another generation.
Meanwhile, the silent salamanders of four related species, moved deliberately toward the pools where they also were hatched. They looked like something ancient and unknowable, pulling one foot after the other, with that wide shouldered-gait of animals made to crawl. They marched in the chill drizzle of a spring night. They crossed patches of ice and tarmac, swished past blades of grass, traversed roads in their purposeful drive to reach a pool.
These are the creatures who would walk a thousand miles for something so important, at least it would seem like a thousand miles because it takes them a long time to walk. In the end, though, they did not get a cuddle from a svelte female. Instead, they laid bright white packets of sperm on the bottom of the pool. Females came over the next weeks, found the packets, and inseminated themselves using some unknown rubric to decide which ones were from the “coolest” (or the “hottest”?) mates.
One way or another the males risked death to get there and another Monday not long ago, I, my son and several students were out, moving wet salamanders across the road on Pine Street and Chebacco Road. We found several trying to cross the onramp to Route 128. Each looked prehistoric, as if time had stopped. If we turned our heads too fast, and caught the real world unawares, we would have found ourselves in a giant primeval swamp. But we didn’t. We were here, on a newly paved road, watching creatures with the drive of life, fight in slow motion to produce the next generation. And we could see: cold-blooded is not about a lack of passion. It is about pace.
We live in a rapid, hot-blooded world. The pace of our lives is increasing with technology, so that we can barely manage. Just as the modern car brings danger to the slow movement of the unaware amphibian, our modern world brings risks to us. We can fall into danger of missing the world, paying attention to the inconsequential. We can rewire our brains with stress, and alter our personalities with drugs.
Salamanders cannot think through the risks they are taking but we can, and often fail to. For people of faith, we are to take the thinking part of ourselves, wed it to the wisdom of God, and temper the rash and driven bits, a process that makes walking to the right vernal pool on the right night after sleeping for 11 months look like a cakewalk.  There is a beauty in their certainty, something appealing in the simplicity of their actions which we cannot attempt to understand.
Nonetheless, I believe that in spite of their cold-blooded nature, if we could tap into that salamander brain, with a futuristic microchip and animal translator, we might hear the strains: “ . . . and I would walk across this road, and I would walk right back again, just to be the one who walked the road (and got nicked by a car) to lay a sperm packet you will choose la-a-ter.” Now that’s passion!
So watch for amphibians on the road. It’s their time of year.
Dr. Dorothy Boorse is associate professor of biology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her husband live with their two sons in Beverly, MA.



Dorothy Boorse