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
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.