Fragments of Life

MabeesSalamander_web

When zookeepers discovered that flamingos need a large flock in order to breed, it led to all kinds of crazy approaches to fool the birds – mirrors, plastic yard ornaments, speakers playing bird-crowd sounds (now, zoos generally just keep more birds). I think of habitat loss and fragmentation like a flock of flamingos. There’s a certain amount required for the habitat to function properly. If the size is too small or divided, it will fail.

The Atlantic Longleaf Pine Ecosystem (a.k.a. pine barrens – a deceptive name considering the high amount of biodiversity) spanned over 35 million hectares (about the size of Germany) around the year 1500; today, only ~1 million hectares of pocket forests remain. (1)

Good news though! If habitat is restored, amphibians (including our friend, Mabee’s salamander), among many other species, come back too. (2)

 

  1. D.H. Van Lear et al. 2005. History and restoration of the longleaf pine-grassland
    ecosystem. Forest Ecology and Management 211:150–165
  2. J. C. Mitchell. 2016. Restored Wetlands in Mid-Atlantic Agricultural Landscapes Enhance Species Richness of Amphibian Assemblages. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management. 7(2) 490-498

Newts of Fire and Ice

newt

Newts 101:

Red-Spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) are the coolest animals on the planet. I should know – I worked with over 10,000 of them for two years.

Newts have four different life stages – egg, larva, eft, adult. The eft stage is most unusual since it’s completely terrestrial (for up to 7+ years!) AND incredibly poisonous (you have to eat it though). People used to think that efts were born from fire. The red color may have contributed to this folktale, but it may also be their emergence from logs thrown on the fire. Newt skin secretions can protect them from flame for a short time. It’s the reason many firefighter companies have a newt in their logo. Asbestos was once called “salamander wool”.

Frozen Newt-sicle

I researched the Red-Spotted Newt for my Master’s Degree (and fell in love with them – hence, the name of this blog). Every week, I trapped newts and recorded their spot patterns to identify each one individually. Since Red-Spotted Newts are fairly common, I trapped, identified, and released over 10,000. The scientific relevance of this work turned out to be … well… lame. Reports indicated that this population was very unusual. Turns out (sigh) it wasn’t. But I did learn a couple random things that no one else has reported.

  1. Newts can freeze solid and survive. I know because I left one out too long while I was checking traps and it was a little newt-popsicle when I returned. I took it back to the lab to use as a dissection specimen, but thankfully she’d recovered.
  2. While most experts call Red-Spotted Newts aquatic as adults, I think my study population was terrestrial with a brief aquatic period for reproduction. Even in permanent pools of water, newts leave in the fall. Only a few females overwinter in the ponds.

Warts & All

American Toad (Bufo americanus)Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Shakespeare’s witches open Macbeth by tossing a toad into their cauldron, along with parts of snakes, newts, bats and other dejected, unfortunate creatures. Why such a bad rap? After all, people LOVE frogs – they turn into princes, they have good tasting legs, and some cultures consider them lucky. But toads? Feared, reviled. What’s the big difference?

Toads tend to live in drier environments than frogs. In the frog’s aquatic environment, escape is just a hop away. For toads, though, warts are the key to survival. The two large “warts” on a toad, just behind the head, are glands that secrete a substance toxic to the toad’s predators.

Ay, there’s the rub – Toads are associated with poison. They actually produce three kinds of toxins: two affect the heart and one can produce hallucinations. Some cultures have used these chemicals for medical purposes. Perhaps those Shakespearean hags were just brewing up a treatment for edema.

Protect toads! While the American Toad is not threatened or endangered, many other populations of amphibians are experiencing sharp declines.

Learn more about the American Toad (Bufo americanus) and hear it call at http://www.herpsofnc.org/herps_of_NC/anurans/Bufame/Buf_ame.html