Boston Blog

To save salamanders, biologists get their feet wet

Every spring, a Wheaton College biologist and hundreds of “citizen scientists” wade through woodland waters to study amphibians and protect their breeding grounds.

Adrianne Appel

Biologist Scott Shumway doesn’t get much sleep this time of year. Every spring, Shumway, a professor with Norton, MA-based Wheaton College, leads a team of students and researchers to visit woodland pools at night in eastern Massachusetts and study the amphibians that breed there nocturnally.

He and his team are part of a large network of Massachusetts residents that gathers data from these so-called vernal pools in the spring. The data are used by state officials to certify and protect these habitats from development.

Vernal pools, which form from rainfall during the spring and disappear by summer, are the sole breeding sites for wood frogs and salamanders; three species are considered rare in Massachusetts. Tens of thousands of the pools dot the Massachusetts landscape in the spring, but fewer form each year because of road, housing, or commercial development.

”There is a worldwide decline in amphibians,” says Shumway. “It’s important to protect these breeding grounds.”

The breeding grounds for this rare blue-spotted salamander have been protected by the state of Massachusetts, thanks to the efforts of hundreds of amateur naturalists. (Credit: Vernal Pool Association)

Call for help

Since 1996, vernal pools have been protected in Massachusetts under the state Wetlands Protection Act if they meet certain criteria and are certified by the state.

Government officials, however, rely on ordinary citizens to collect the data needed for certification, which includes photographs of salamanders and wood frogs. Through the work of these amateur naturalists, 4,400 pools have been certified so far.

”We don’t have the staff or time or funding,“ says Marea Gabriel, an aquatic biologist with the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program, which does the certification.

State officials say there is no hard data showing whether the certification program is benefiting the rare salamander populations, which include the blue-spotted salamander, the marbled salamander, and the Jefferson salamander. But protecting a breeding site of a rare species is common sense, they say.

”For the rare species, there probably are only several hundred sites where they live,“ says Jonathan Regosin, regulatory review manager with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program.

Salamander lovers

Across Massachusetts, hundreds of backyard naturalists volunteer their time to protect vernal pools. As part of the Vernal Pool Association, they communicate via an e-mail list, sharing notes about what is happening in their local pools.

”A lot of people identify the pools as their own piece of nature they are watching,” says Leo Kenney, the association’s founder and a former biology teacher at Reading High School who has taught many teachers and students how to collect the certification data.

Salamander enthusiasts in Framingham and Lincoln even close roads near busy vernal pools to allow salamanders to safely cross and reach their destination.

Even with such well-established efforts to protect salamander breeding grounds, little is known about the biology of these amphibians.

To address this, Kathleen Morgan, another Wheaton College biologist and her team have been studying a group of about 300 spotted salamanders in a vernal pool on campus. They’re collecting DNA samples from small pieces of tail snipped off the salamanders. Through DNA analysis, they hope to find out how often the animals breed, how long their reproductive lifespan is, how they select a mate, and whether during breeding season they return to the same pool in which they hatched.

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