How did the toad hop across the road?
Helping animals cross at critical choke points
AT MILE MARKER 78, ALLIGATOR ALLEY, FLA.
About a quarter of the way from Naples to Fort Lauderdale on this remote cross-Everglades highway in Florida, the interstate passes over a grassy culvert.Skip to next paragraph
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To most motorists zooming past at 70-plus miles an hour, the bridge is nothing more than a thud-thud under their radials.
But if they actually pulled over to the side the road and clambered down the steep embankment, they would find themselves face to face with an environmental innovation that is changing the way highways are being designed around the world.
Here in Florida, they call it a panther crossing. In Canada, the same idea works for elk and deer. In England, a much smaller version helps keep migrating toads in hopping form.
The basic strategy is to create a safe, natural means for wildlife to cross a road without endangering their own lives and those of unsuspecting motorists.
Highway planners and ecologists in Florida came up with the idea of a wildlife underpass more than a decade ago when major improvements to Alligator Alley (see map) threatened to isolate a large section of the Big Cypress National Preserve.
They needed to find a way to keep animals off the road. But they also needed to allow animals - like the endangered Florida panther - to continue to hunt and roam in their native habitat on both sides of the highway. The solution: fence the entire length of the highway and funnel the wildlife into culverts passing safely under the traffic.
It wasn't cheap. Thirty-six culverts were constructed along a 40-mile section of Alligator Alley at a cost of $13 million.
But today, the project is hailed as a shining success and has been studied by engineers and ecologists facing similar problems in Canada, Mexico, Australia, and countries throughout Europe. Some ecologists - including pioneering environmentalists in the Netherlands - have taken the concept one step further with the development of wildlife overpasses.
It is all aimed at helping to reduce the negative impact of highways on natural ecosystems.
The crossing at mile marker 78 on Alligator Alley is carpeted with grass and ferns and affords skittish animals a wide view all the way across to the other side. To the north, it leads into the cover of a dark cypress forest. To the south, it passes through a line of willows into a sawgrass wetland surrounded by slash pine and cypress trees. The only apparent drawback is that every three to five seconds a car or 18-wheel tractor-trailer roars overhead. It fills the crossing with a jolting whoosh and rumble.
Nonetheless, the crossings work. Fresh deer and raccoon tracks mark a muddy game trail that snakes through the culvert. A 10-foot fence topped by three strands of barbed wire prevented me from checking the entire crossing for panther tracks. But ecologists working with radio tracking collars and heat-sensing cameras have verified that panthers and other animals are using the culverts.
"All the animals that are down there are using the crossings," says Gary Evink, an ecologist with the Florida Department of Transportation. "We have everything from alligators, to wading birds, to bears and panthers."