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A grey and black reticulated salamander walking through the grass
Information icon Endangered reticulated flatwoods salamander. Photo by Virginia Tech.

Breakthrough for recovering endangered Florida salamanders encourages scientists

A little good news in these crazy coronavirus times: the very small and federally endangered reticulated flatwoods salamander recently notched a much-needed victory in its long struggle to avoid extinction.

Ecologist Harold Mitchell explains: “We translocated salamander larvae to another pond where they successfully turned into metamorphs. This shows that the animals can live if they’re moved from one location to another. That’s never been done before with this species.”

Mitchell leads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to recover the salamander whose home has dwindled to three dozen ponds in Florida and three in Georgia. The Service, along with the U.S. Air Force and Virginia Tech, have strived mightily for years to boost salamander populations at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s Panhandle. With little success.

Until now.

It wasn’t easy.

A black and grey splotched salamander in someone's hand

Four years ago, biologists began “head-starting” salamander eggs in 350-gallon cattle tanks on an enclosed corner of Eglin in hopes of artificially increasing survival rates. Without intervention, only about 4 percent of the eggs survive metamorphosis. And only about 4 percent of those survivors made it to reproductive adulthood, Mitchell said.

“That’s a recipe for death,” he added.

Head-starting allowed up to 85 percent of the eggs to hatch and to reach metamorphosis, akin to a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Hundreds of the three-inch-long metamorphs were then placed into various ponds in hopes that they would eventually leave as adults to breed.

Wishful thinking.

“We couldn’t figure out why some animals made it and some didn’t,” Mitchell said. “We needed to do something to get these animals on the landscape.”

Enter Virginia Tech. Carola Haas, a professor of wildlife ecology in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, worked with biologists at Eglin to determine if releasing small larvae into ponds worked better than awaiting metamorphosis. The experiment also tested whether it truly mattered which ponds — ponds that dry up quickly or ponds that don’t — salamanders were returned to.

Turned out, it may not matter, according to preliminary data. The upshot: biologists can save a lot of time — and, hopefully, salamanders — by moving the baby amphibians to a new location.

“We are thrilled with the possibility that these animals could start a new population in ponds that haven’t seen salamanders for more than 15 years,” Haas said.

A note of caution, though: The sample size, obviously, is quite low. And the scientists must await DNA fingerprinting to determine where exactly the recaptured salamanders came from so, in the future, they can match where salamanders should go.

Still, the results shine a bit of needed light onto an otherwise bleak spring.

“If the results remain consistent we’ll have more freedom and opportunities to get more salamanders on the road toward recovery,” Mitchell said. “We might start seeing some real progress.”

Contact

Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
daniel_chapman@fws.gov, (404) 679-4028

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