CTS – and the ‘Ambassadors’ of Their Species

More news for the endangered California Tiger Salamanders!

Seven organizations will soon have endangered California tiger salamanders for their educational programs.  Shown above: One of the young ambassadors just before being adopted out to Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding.
Photo Credit: Christopher Searcy

A project is underway to get propagated California Tiger Salamanders (CTS) adopted by seven various organizations for public outreach and educational purposes. This opportunity to bring endangered species to the public and educate people using a real live specimen is both rare and an important project for both the CTS and the public.

The endangered CTS is a rarely spotted in the wild but soon seven will be taking the stage at zoo’s and environmental education centers in California thanks to the efforts of U.C. Davis and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Salamanders are like frogs in that they change form and go from living in the water when they are born, to living on land. This is called metamorphosis.
Photo Credit: Christopher Searcy

CTS spend the first 3-5 months of their lives as aquatic larvae with dorsal fin and aquatic gills.  The experiment ran for approximately two months from when the larvae were just over an inch long until they resorbed their gills and dorsal fin to start life on land.
Photo Credit: Christopher Searcy

The salamanders involved were born and raised in captivity in a study by Dr. Brad Shaffer in his lab at U.C. Davis. The basic goal of the study was to learn what effects changes in the water have on the size CTS are when they make that change to living on the land. They did this by creating 40 artificial pond communities that replicated the breeding ponds of CTS and then they varied three factors; number of salamander larvae, number of prey (the bugs and things salamanders eat) and water levels. What they found was that all three things effected salamander size when they metamorphosis. However, the most influential factor was how many salamander larvae there were, e.g., the more larvae, the smaller the salamanders were when they changed. 

What does that mean for the endangered CTS?  The researchers think it means CTS get a sort of pass in the bad years when there aren’t as many of them. Those salamanders that are born and make it to their teenage metamorphose phase are bigger and more likely to survive to adulthood.

After the study was completed and these good citizens had given their best to science, a number of CTS were removed from the site and are now at their adopted homes.

The salamanders could not be released into the wild because they may have been exposed to contagions, such as the deadly chytrid fungus, in the laboratory setting due to exposure to other animals and humans. To prevent the possible spread of disease it is standard practice to not release lab animals back into the wild. Instead, these salamanders were adopted and will continue to benefit their species and our understanding of them through public outreach and educational opportunities.

Although people are not allowed to keep endangered species in captivity, the Service is able to let zoo’s and other organizations display CTS for educational reasons. This is where David Kelly entered the picture. 

Kelly, a biologist from Service’s Sacramento Office drafted the transfer letters for adopting the salamanders and shared his expectations and hopes for this project. He was optimistic for the outcome of these adoptions and believes that the visual of real live CTS will move the public to want to help save this endangered species, especially when hardly anyone ever sees a CTS.

Photo Credit:  Adam Clause

“They‘re really kind of cute.” Kelly told me as he explained how powerful the salamanders’ image could be. What better way to bring attention to their cause, than to use their own adorable little faces? These tiny creatures will no doubt bring a platform of education and conservation to their species while, as Kelly so nicely put it, acting as “little ambassadors of the CTS.”

So look out for these little guys and the opportunity for you to meet a CTS near you soon.

The organizations adopting the salamanders include CuriOdyssey, the Oakland Zoo, Sacramento Splash, the Sacramento Zoo, and the San Francisco Zoo, Swaim Biological, and Redding’s Turtle Bay Exploration Park. They should have the CTS on display soon, so be on the look-out for news and be sure to visit a California tiger salamander ambassador in the future!

Story by Ashley Cotter, Summer Intern, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sacramento Office
August 2, 2012