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WRD News Story

 


WRD Continues Survey Efforts for the Flatwoods Salamander
 

With dipnets in hand, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division (GA DNR/WRD) biologists went out this past winter searching for the larvae of one of Georgia’s most secretive amphibians – the flatwoods salamander.  Looking similar to frog tadpoles, the larvae depend on isolated cypress ponds and marsh-like wetlands for survival.  The identification of sites that contain this wetland breeding habitat along with nearby open natural longleaf pine flatwoods for adult salamanders is crucial to the success of WRD’s cooperative conservation strategy for this species.

“Because currently undiscovered populations of flatwoods salamanders likely occur on privately-owned lands, the involvement of private landowners is vital to the success of this survey,” said WRD wildlife biologist Thomas Floyd.  “Many landowners already manage their property to benefit wildlife, and we want to offer our assistance to help them enhance habitat for this sensitive species as well.”

The major threat to the flatwoods salamander is loss of both its native pine terrestrial habitat and its isolated wetland breeding habitat.  This amphibian historically occurred within a broad band across the lower Coastal Plain of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Populations have declined primarily due to alterations of the Southeast’s native pine flatwoods and associated wetland habitats.  The historical extent of these pine flatwoods was approximately 32 million acres.  Today, the acreage has been reduced to 5.6 million, or approximately 18 percent of its original coverage, and these remnants are highly fragmented.

“Currently, flatwoods salamanders are known to inhabit only four tracts of land within Georgia,” said Floyd.  “Three of those tracts are public lands, while the fourth is private, located in southwest Georgia and managed strictly for wildlife purposes.”

    As part of recovery efforts, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina initiated a collaborative range-wide survey for the flatwoods salamander in 2001.  Recent years of extended drought and more recently, surplus rainfall, have frustrated survey efforts by disrupting breeding activity.  Biologists attempt to roughly identify suitable habitats using maps, aerial photos and other resources, but need assistance from landowners and land managers to more accurately assess potential habitat on private land.

Because of the secretive nature of adults, most flatwoods salamander surveys focus on larval sampling by dipnetting, funnel trapping and nocturnal visual searches in appropriate wetland habitat during the period of larval development (January - April).  Although mature, longleaf pine with relatively undisturbed natural ground cover is often indicative of suitable terrestrial adult habitat, survey efforts for flatwoods salamanders in Georgia will not exclude sites with a history of disturbance, provided that suitable wetland breeding habitat exists nearby.

Flatwoods salamanders take their common name from their pine flatwoods habitat.  Adult salamanders have a net-like pattern of light gray or white-flecked lines on the backs, sides, head and tail and typically measure 4-6 inches in total length.  Adults are highly secretive during the non-breeding season, making detection by researchers extremely difficult and practically impossible during most of the year.  Flatwoods salamanders spend the majority of each year hidden underground, presumably within root channels and burrows made by themselves or other animals.  

The broad-headed, bushy-gilled flatwoods salamander larvae are distinctive with a prominent light yellow or beige vertebral stripe running the length of the otherwise chocolate-brown body.  The larvae also have a dark brown stripe through each eye, extending from the nostril to the gills.  This cryptic, striped pattern allows the larvae to blend into the dead vegetation within the wetland habitat, remaining hidden from predators and aquatic invertebrate prey.

    Breeding habitat of the flatwoods salamander consists of isolated pond cypress dominated depressions often with a smaller component of blackgum or slash pine.  These wetlands are not found directly adjacent to floodplains or streams, but instead are isolated within pine forests.  Suitable wetlands have a marsh-like appearance with sedges and grasses growing throughout and other herbaceous species in the shallow water edges.  Trees and shrubs typically grow in and around these ponds.  A relatively open canopy resulting from seasonal prescribed burns is necessary to maintain appropriate vegetation, which serves as cover for salamander larvae and their aquatic invertebrate prey.

    Optimum terrestrial habitat for the adult flatwoods salamander is open woodlands of longleaf pine that is maintained by frequent prescribed burning and contains isolated wetlands.  Breeding ponds of the flatwoods salamander are ephemeral in nature.  These ponds completely dry out on an annual basis, while having standing water in winter through early spring during years with average or surplus rainfall.  Flatwoods salamander larvae, as with most other amphibians, need an environment free of predatory fish to survive.  Frequent drying of their breeding ponds assures that populations of large predatory fish cannot survive from year to year within these wetlands.

The elusive flatwoods salamander is part of South Georgia’s natural heritage.  The GA DNR, Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Wildlife & Natural Heritage Section seeks Georgians’ assistance in identifying suitable habitat for this threatened species.  It is hoped that these survey efforts as well as management of the habitats of known and newly discovered populations will eventually lead to range-wide conservation of the flatwoods salamander and reward landowners who provide habitat.

Several conservation programs provide technical and financial assistance to private landowners who agree to conduct various habitat management practices to benefit wildlife.  Some of these include the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and Wildlife Incentives for Nongame and Game Species (Project WINGS).  In addition, private landowners who manage their lands to benefit endangered and threatened species, such as the flatwoods salamander, are eligible to participate in Partners for Fish and Wildlife sponsored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The GA DNR will assess any apparent threats to long-term survival of each flatwoods salamander population discovered and assist the landowner in drafting a site-specific management plan.  Beneficial management that could be undertaken by landowners includes actions to enhance, restore, or maintain habitat through prescribed burning or filling-in drainage ditches.  The USFWS and GA DNR are investigating the possibility of applying the Safe Harbor Program to the flatwoods salamander.  The Safe Harbor Program provides technical assistance to many landowners who have other rare species like red-cockaded woodpeckers on their land.  This Program has proven to be popular and beneficial to both endangered and threatened species and landowners.

    To obtain additional information on the flatwoods salamander or to assist GA DNR in survey efforts by providing the location of potentially suitable flatwoods salamander habitat, contact GA DNR/WRD, Nongame Wildlife & Natural Heritage Section, 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, GA 31029 or call (478) 994-1438.

    Georgians can support the conservation and protection of the flatwoods salamander and their habitat by purchasing a wildlife license plate for their vehicles, or by donating to the “Give Wildlife a Chance” State Income Tax Checkoff.  Since 1997, more than 937,000 wildlife license plates have been sold in Georgia, raising over $13 million for wildlife conservation, recreation and education projects.  The primary source of funding for the Nongame Wildlife and Natural Heritage Section, the 1997 plate depicts a Northern bobwhite (quail) in flight through longleaf pine habitat – one of Georgia’s most at-risk ecosystems.

Editorial Note:  Black & White images and color photos of the adult and larval flatwoods salamander are available.   Contact Kitty Esco at (478) 994-1438 for copies.



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