Salamanders at Mequon

(Photo courtesy of Mequon Nature Preserve)

By Lindsay Renick Mayer

This story has been re-printed from the Amphibian Survival Alliance’s Spring 2016 issue of FrogLog

Seven years after staff at the Mequon Nature Preserve (MNP) in southeastern Wisconsin began a project to re-establish the hardwood forests that once dominated the landscape, they noticed that while snakes, frogs and birds had returned in abundance, one important resident family of species was still missing: salamanders. Farmland development, parking lot construction and other urban sprawl projects around the preserve had essentially closed it off, making it difficult for salamanders to find their own way to the perfect new habitat.

So MNP decided to give them a lift with an ambitious strategy.

MNP has translocated two species—the blue-spotted salamander and the Eastern tiger salamander—from nearby healthy salamander populations to the preserve in the hopes that the salamanders would re-establish breeding populations. For the first time since the project started four years ago, researchers found a few large masses of tiger salamander eggs, likely from adults that were translocated as eggs in 2013, indicating a naturally reproducing population.

“Salamanders often cannot voluntarily recolonize fragmented habitats,” said Dr. Gary Casper, a herpetologist with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Casper drew on his years of expertise to help MNP determine how to set this project up and where to pull the eggs. “Much sweat and treasure has been invested in restoring these habitats, and if the salamanders succeed, we will know we got it right.”

The salamander crew worked with local partners and pulled eggs from five distinct ephemeral pools, ensuring genetic diversity. They took eggs only from populations that wouldn’t be harmed by the action. The biggest challenge? Figuring out the best time to go out to pull salamander eggs from each location, says Jason Nickels, MNP’s director of education and land restoration.

Jason Nickels, director of education and land restoration at Mequon Nature Preserves, holds naturally produced tiger salamander eggs.

“Every single one of these ponds seems to be on a little bit of a different time table for when it warms up and when the rain comes,” Nickels says. “It’s much more difficult to try to go out there and find the translucent eggs when they’re under six inches of water that’s murky from the rain. We have about a three-week window to get to the right spot at the right time to find the eggs.”

Although the team hasn’t yet found blue-spotted salamander eggs, Nickels says it stands to reason that if the tiger salamanders have survived, the more elusive blue-spotted salamanders are likely reproducing, too. The team will continue monitoring every year, which includes visual searches for egg masses and funnel trapping for larvae.

“We’ve put them in the right place, we’ve given them the right habitat, we’ve taken care of everything around them,” Nickels says. “Nature will do its thing.”

For other organizations looking to do a similar project, Nickels recommends talking to as many experts as are available and working with local partners that can help determine the right time to collect eggs and the best populations to pull from. Ultimately, though, he says that preservation—rather than translocation—is always ideal, even when the species aren’t threatened or endangered.

“Preservation is so much less work,” Nickels says. “You don’t want to wait until it’s too late and you’re just saving the last few individuals. Now we have to go through all this extra work to make sure that something that should be common doesn’t disappear.”

The most surprising part of the project has had nothing to do with the salamanders themselves, Nickels says, but with the response from visitors to the preserve.

“I never thought this project would be a big deal, but it has turned out to be a great way to educate visitors,” Nickels says. “They’re not just learning about salamanders, but about why we had to do this in the first place, what humans have done to the salamanders’ homes. You’ve got to have an emotional hook to convince people to protect natural habitat and using cute little salamanders has been really effective.”

MNP’s salamander translocation project was funded in part through the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin’s C.D. Besadny Conservation Grant Program. Wetland restoration and/or wildlife monitoring at MNP has been funded by the Antonia Foundation, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Brookby Foundation, Patricia Smith Wilmeth Fund, Fund for Lake Michigan and James E. Dutton Foundation.

For more information, contact Jason Nickels at [email protected].