Tag Archives: amphibians

Salamander Fairyland: Conserving a unique treasure in the Blue Ridge Mountains

On a cool, crisp evening, Liberty University professors and their students trek through the damp understory of the Jefferson National Forest as the sun falls behind the treeline.

By the time they arrive at their study site among the trees, it is completely dark and lightly drizzling. Equipped with headlamps, they creep along transect lines, scouring the vegetation for glimpses of gold.

They are hunting for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander. Often beginning at eight o’clock and working until one in the morning, they search for the salamander while it hunts for worms and springtails – its invertebrate prey.

Professors Norm Reichenbach, Paul Sattler, Tim Brophy and David Marsh have been working with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander for nearly two decades. Their research not only allows students to experience the species up close, but also helps federal and state agencies to better understand and manage this unique amphibian.

“This is a great partnership that helps secure the future of the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” Reichenbach said. “Since most of the range of this salamander is in areas managed by the Forest Service and NPS, universities working cooperatively with these agencies can engage in research that aids in the conservation of these species.”

Reichenbach and Marsh study a variety of subjects regarding the species’ ecology, such as how habitat changes like timber harvest might affect the salamander or how other species, like the eastern red-backed salamander, might impact the Peaks-of-Otter salamander.

Known as “sit and wait predators,” this salamander often forages while perched atop forest vegetation, unintentionally revealing itself to the researchers and students that seek to round them up, at least for a little while.

The metallic, brassy flecks that speckle this critter’s dark brown body help the students to identify and grab the salamander before it scoots to a hiding spot under the damp leaves that coat the forest floor.

“You have to see them before they see you,” said Reichenbach, professor of biology at Liberty University.

Because the salamander can also be found under downed logs – or any other place where moisture is naturally trapped and the ground is cool – professors and students spend many hours hunkered over, flipping over anything that may reveal a golden prize.

An hour or less from their classroom, Reichenbach’s students learn about conservation hands on in the biologically rich Appalachians, which just so happens to be right in their backyard.

“You can be in one spot that has one species, walk as little as a few hundred meters, and then find a completely different species,” said Marsh, professor at Washington and Lee University. “You can think of the Southern Appalachians as a sort of salamander Galapagos.”

With a world-wide distribution of only 12 miles, this salamander’s range is contained almost entirely in Virginia’s Peaks-of-Otter region within the Jefferson National Forest and the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Not to mention, it’s found only at elevations above 1600 ft.

The salamander’s limited range has landed it on the radar of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been working with the National Forest and Park Service to better understand the status of this at-risk species.

The U.S. Forest Service has been managing the Jefferson National Forest with the Peaks-of-Otter salamander in mind for nearly 20 years. In 1997, a conservation agreement between the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service established primary and secondary conservation areas to guide timber harvesting and manage this sensitive species.

The Peaks-of-Otter salamander, like all plethodon amphibians, has no lungs – breathing entirely through the tissues in its mouth and skin. Preserving adequate canopy cover to prevent the sun from drying out soil and leaf litter is crucial as the salamander relies on adequate ground moisture to keep their skin moist enough to extract oxygen from the air.

In the primary conservation area no trees are cut, and in the secondary area timber harvest activities must meet guidelines for protecting Peaks-of-Otter habitat, such as leaving at least 50 percent of the canopy intact and leaving large woody debris on the ground.

These guidelines were informed by the research of the local professors and students who continue to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander and its biology on an continuing basis.

“Ongoing research has enhanced our understanding of the species and helped to shape many of the existing management practices in place today,” said Rose Agbalog, Service biologist.

“Partnerships are critical to conservation efforts,” added Fred Huber, retired Forest Botanist for the Jefferson National Forest. “By sharing knowledge, combining resources, and coordinating research, we can move more quickly and effectively to protect species.”

Partnerships like these between universities and federal agencies take the conservation of at-risk species to new heights, potentially precluding the need to list them under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to the devoted conservation efforts underway, the Peaks-of-Otter salamander is abundant within its limited range.

One night after a recent rain, Reichenbach recalled that the moss-covered boulders along the side of a ridge were strewn with this alluring critter. Huber and Reichenbach found sixty salamanders in just two hours, remembering it fondly as a “fairyland of salamanders.”

“The U.S. Forest Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway have worked for over 20 years to conserve important habitat for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” said Agbalog. “With continuing collaboration and conservation efforts from these agencies and local university partners, we hope to secure the future of this unique species.”

Making a difference in the salamander movement

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What might look like a fallen twig in the road is actually a migrating spotted salamander.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

As we slide into our rain gear, the spotted salamanders are already sliding down the hill, making their way toward the wetland across the road.  Driving here was like living in a game of Frogger, only we were the car.  Switching roles now, we park the car and begin escorting as many of these slippery critters across the road as possible.  What had looked like fallen twigs from the car are actually slow-moving salamanders getting crushed by oncoming traffic.  I am joining New York Field Office biologist, Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, on a volunteer mission to document and help migrating woodland amphibians.

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Spotted salamander that emerged from the forest floor on a rainy night.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Salamanders represent one of the largest sources of biomass of all vertebrates in the forest landscape.  They also can help us by eating pest insects, like mosquitoes that breed in the same vernal pools as them.  Just beneath the forest floor are countless hibernating frogs and salamanders, awaiting the first heavy rain after a spring thaw.

Typically, late March and early April are when they resurface from their winter homes, but with unseasonably warm weather this year, some woodland amphibians came out early.  By early March, spring peepers and spotted salamanders are emerging from the earth, half-awake and on auto pilot to make it to the wetland and breed.  This migration has been happening for tens of thousands of years in the forests of New York State, except one thing is different now: we have placed roads in the middle of their route.

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A spotted salamander waits at the roadside, as if pondering whether or not to cross.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

It’s a double-edged sword because roads have made it much easier to see and document this impressive migration, but now there is a spike in fatality.  Driven by instinct, these amphibians all travel in one direction, while cars are streaming from both.  Some are lucky enough to escape the 4 wheels overhead, but for a vast majority, luck fails.

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Spotted salamander makes his way toward the headlights of a car, attempting to cross over to the wetland on the other side.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

That’s where we come in, acting as a free lift service for migrating frogs and salamanders.  One salamander pops his head up over the roadside, another is already making a slow dash in the middle of the road, and then a peeper springs into the action!  We quickly grab those in sight and safely transport them to the other side of the road.  I can’t help but think about how many slip past the two of us before we can rescue them.  I can only imagine what passing cars are thinking as they see our bright orange vests on the side of the road at 10:00 pm in the wind and rain.

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A spotted salamander pops its head over the edge of the road after coming down the hill from the woods.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

There is a small crew of volunteers in Central New York who maintain this late night tradition when the warm spring rains fall.  This is part of a larger effort for the NYSDEC’s Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project, which so far has helped more than 8,500 amphibians cross New York roads safely.  Others are helping make a difference across the Northeast as well.  In Massachusetts, salamander tunnels have been installed to allow safe crossing.  Some areas have even begun to periodically close roads to allow the hundreds, if not thousands of amphibians to make it to their breeding pools without the risk.

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Lending a helping hand to make sure this salamander safely crosses the road.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

With spring still a few weeks away and sporadic temperature changes ahead, there could be more nights like this. If you know of a breeding location or want to lend a helping hand in this effort for the Northeast, you can find a local volunteer opportunity near you. When you’re driving near a wetland, be sure to use extra caution on rainy nights, and be aware there may be volunteers and amphibians out and about.

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Bog turtles…the canaries in the coal mine

A young bog turtle found during a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

A young bog turtle found during a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

It’s a warm summer day. I’m standing in a tall, wet, grassy field with the sound of bullfrogs and water splashing as I pull my boot from the muck that swallowed it. After hours of walking around in a swamp under the hot sun, I finally found what I came looking for: a tiny 4-inch-long turtle.

This is New York’s smallest turtle species, the bog turtle.

There are only 40 to 60 wetlands that support bog turtles in New York, most of which lie within the southeastern portion of the state. While that might seem like a lot, it’s not. The bog turtle is protected under law as “endangered” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Bog turtle numbers have dwindled as their wetland habitat has been destructed for commercial, residential and road development. Sometimes, wetlands are drained for farmland, or they grow into mature woods or become overgrown with invasive plants like purple loosestrife and common reed.

Bog turtles don’t choose just any wetland for their habitat. Suitable habitat is usually described as spring-fed meadow wetlands or open-canopy fens that may have fairly mucky soil with limestone underneath, and channels interspersed, called rivulets. These channels contain 1-3 inches of water that meander through small islands of sedge. It takes biologists hours upon hours to carefully examine these landscapes for the elusive bog turtle.

A forested wetland that has been destroyed to build a housing development. Credit: Lara Cerri

What was once a forested wetland has been converted to a housing development. Credit: Lara Cerri

Our agency, guided by a recovery plan, leads efforts to recover this species within its northern population range. The plan includes goals and objectives that partners will achieve to eventually “delist” this species over time, meaning bog turtle populations will be secure enough that state or federal protection is no longer needed.

Our office works with federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, universities, private consulting firms and private landowners in two main areas of New York: the Prairie Peninsula-Lake Plains area (counties bordering the southern portion of Lake Ontario) and the Hudson-Housatonic area (counties that are east of the Hudson River).

A primary goal of the recovery plan is to restore or enhance bog turtle habitat on private, state and federal land. This makes collaboration among all of our partners essential to accomplish efforts like site visits, health assessments, annual meetings and various restoration projects.

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Some may ask, why spend all this time and effort on a turtle?

For me, the reason is easy…bog turtles are the “canary in the coal mine” for wetlands. If we find that something is negatively impacting bog turtles, it could be a sign that the wetland they use is in trouble — the same wetland we use for fishing, swimming, boating or flood protection. That’s why it is our duty to protect bog turtles and their habitat; our efforts not only protect other aquatic species, but we also benefit.

So, you can see why I spend all day stuck in the muck, hunched over a tussock to find one of these special little guys.

If you’re hooked on these turtles like I am, I invite you to learn more about what we do for bog turtles by reading my upcoming posts.