"The First to Disappear"
Little salamanders are the red flag of habitat harm when humans move in
By Madeline Bodin
With a ground-hugging bearing and body just 3 1/2 inches long, not including her tail, No. 309 inched across the landscape through the summer and fall. Fallen branches loomed like fortress walls. Rock ledges towered like mountain ranges.
Being eaten by a snake, attacked by a shrew or dried out by the summer sun were constant dangers. Traveling only on rainy nights, she found refuge in the root system of a beech tree, in a rotten hemlock log and in a tunnel system under some fallen tree limbs as she made her way across the forest floor.
She completed the trek in October. No. 309 spent the winter in a tunnel
system on the slope of a small ravine. She is one lucky
According to scientists and conservationists,
Human development in the Northeast is putting the squeeze on many species of
mole salamander, and indeed, on many species of amphibian, but for
The states of
"Here is the problem with
Both of these signposts point toward trouble for the
After these moves,
"The hybrid forms are a good indication of changes in the population' s genetic structure," says Klemens. "The change is often fueled by habitat disturbance."
Between hybridization and polyploidy, pure populations with just two sets of
chromosomes in either species of salamander are relatively rare, Klemens says.
One such population of blue-spotted salamander exists on Montauk. (
"These salamanders need woodland pools to lay eggs in and big chunks of woodlands nearby to live in when they are not laying eggs," explains Droege. "The roads problem exists because the salamanders move slowly and tend to get crushed when traveling to their egg- laying sites. I call this annual event the honeymoon massacre, as it usually occurs on one or two warm rainy nights each spring when much of the population is roiling in salamander lust."
Other amphibians, including salamanders and frogs, that move from drier uplands to wetlands to breed suffer from their own honeymoon massacres.
A study by James Gibbs, a professor at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, found that the farther a species migrates to breed, the bigger impact development-especially roads - has on it.
In his research at the Yale Natural Preserves in
The red-backed salamander was the most hardy of the animals he studied. It survived even in urban areas.
Klemens is intimate with the way wetland regulations affect various species.
The Metropolitan Conservation Alliance works with municipalities and other
groups in the metropolitan area to create procedures for permits that work for
water quality, human needs and wildlife. He also is chairman of
"Our wetland protection in this country is accomplished by permits, " he says.
Wetland laws don't really protect wetlands in a straightforward way, he says. The laws govern what type of development is allowed or not allowed, and the laws themselves are subject to interpretation by local planning boards. In most places there is no law that says a vernal pool can't be turned into a storm-water overflow basin, which results in no net loss of wetlands but is devastating for the species that rely on the characteristics of the vernal pool.
A 100-foot-wide buffer around any wetland is a common regulation in many
areas, Klemens says. It's used as a rule of thumb by well-intentioned people
even where there are no wetland regulations. But this rule starves animals like
"The 100-foot buffer is designed to protect the quality of the water," says Klemens. "It's not meant to protect wildlife and biodiversity. If the upland requirements of the animals are modest, they survive. That's why riverine and flood-plain species are doing much better. They stay near the wetland, and there is a wider recognition that the areas where they live even are wetlands."
The situation is bleak for animals that rely solely on vernal pools, such as
If 100 feet is not enough, how much is?
"Five hundred and thirty-four feet," says Raymond D. Semlitsch, a
professor of ecology at the
A buffer of that size is large enough to contain the wanderings of 95 percent of the salamanders breeding in the average wetland. To protect just half the salamanders, a buffer of about 400 feet is needed.
Semlitsch arrived at these numbers through an exhaustive survey of the research done by directly tracking salamanders. The scientific papers he surveyed spanned 30 years and covered 265 individual salamanders. The idea, he says, was not to focus on the distance-record winners, but the average salamander under average circumstances.
"My purpose was to give land managers a number they can hang their hat on," says Semlitsch. "I've offered to go to court on this, and I will do it. I can defend it, based on biology."
Some land managers want even better numbers based on the particular
salamander species found on their land and the particular habitat their land
provides. These numbers can be compiled through a survey that tracks individual
salamanders at the site, like the survey
The salamanders in Faccio's survey traveled an average of 412 feet from their breeding pools. It's a figure that fits well with Semlitsch' s overview.
In spite of the general usefulness of Semlitsch's numbers and his confidence in them, the 100-foot wetland buffer remains the standard.
Most land managers find the 534 feet recommendation unpalatable, he says. It simply represents too large a change from the status quo. To Semlitsch, Klemens and other scientists who study wetland animals, these wetland protection issues are much more than quibbles over puddles in the forest.
"These vernal pool animals have a lesson that goes far beyond the vernal pool," says Klemens. Human development is slicing animals' habitat into pieces that meet the needs of only a few, he says. "Unless we allow animals to expand and contract their ranges, as they have done for millennia, we are going to reduce the vitality of these animals, and ultimately of ourselves."
The life that begins each spring in a vernal pool is carried into the forest by the wanderings of the insects, frogs and salamanders that were born there. Sometimes these wanderings carry the vitality of the vernal pool relatively far.
For example, salamander 309 is overwintered 1,414 feet from the pool where she bred last spring. That is just 29 yards short of the length of five football fields laid goalpost to goalpost. It's a distance that is far beyond the 100-foot buffer that can be a death sentence for some salamanders. It's even far beyond even the more generous 534-foot recommendation that marks the average wanderings of most of 309's kind.
Yes, that's one lucky salamander.
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