Amphibian assistance

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Dave Golden Dave Golden, an endangered species biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, takes a swab from an eastern tiger salamander to test for a destructive fungus during a research visit to Cape May County last year. The state has asked Atlantic City Electric for help expanding the breeding areas for the amphibians. photos courtesy New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Atlantic Electric project to offer new areas for eastern tiger salamanders

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Chances are you’ve never seen one, but a rare amphibian is set to get an assist from the local power company.

The eastern tiger salamander may be best known in this area as an obstacle to development — some projects have been sidelined and plans for the Cape May County campus of the Atlantic Cape Community College were delayed and changed to better protect the endangered species — but the rare animal may face a new kind of habitat loss.

This time, rising sea levels could further limit where the animals breed.

The eastern tiger salamander is listed as endangered in New Jersey. In fact, according to Kathy Clark, a biologist with the state’s endangered species program, it looks like Cape May County is home to the state’s only breeding population.

It’s impossible to know just how many salamanders there are in the county, but according to Clark, there are only a few ponds where the creatures lay their eggs.

“There are only about a dozen known sites in New Jersey, and they are all in Cape May County,” said Clark. “These sites are really important for the viability and the survival of the species.”

Few people see any salamanders unless they are looking for them. While walking through almost any woods in New Jersey, anyone who takes the time to turn over a few logs will inevitably encounter one of the smaller relatives of the eastern tiger salamander, the redback salamander, which often has a red stripe running the length of its body. One field guide published by the Department of Environmental Protection lists a total of 16 salamander species in New Jersey, including one called the northern slimy salamander.

But the eastern tiger salamander is one of two in the state listed as endangered, which means there are protections for the animal and its habitat.

It is also huge, at least by salamander standards, the largest such species in New Jersey. An adult grows to be seven or eight inches long, far larger than any other salamander in the state. It is black with yellow spots that resemble tiger stripes. According to Clark, eastern tiger salamanders are nocturnal, burrowing animals that are incredibly hard to spot outside of a rainy night in the breeding season, even for trained naturalists.

The animals laid their eggs in shallow pools in January and February, and even with this year’s cold spring they are probably hatched by now, and living in those pools in their larval stage. By June, they will grow limbs, start to breathe air and leave the water.

These salamanders don’t breed until they are a few years old, Clark said, and they don’t breed every year. What’s more, their ideal breeding pool is full of water in the spring, but then dries up in the summer, so it never becomes home to fish that will eat the eggs and larva.

According to Clark, in other states breeding populations have been lost to development taking their habitat, but her team has their eyes on a new problem – the possibility that rising ocean levels due to global warming could mean some of those dozen or so ponds the species depends on could someday become too salty for the eggs.

“Projected sea level changes spell doom for the ponds close to the bay and ocean,” she said. She compared it to keeping all of your salamander eggs in one basket, or about 10 baskets really.

“When you have so few sites, the chance of one or two catastrophes can really effect the population,” Clark said.

Naturalists can’t do much to hold back the rising ocean, but they started to look at other options, including increasing the number of vernal ponds where the salamanders can breed. Spring ponds, or vernal ponds, are often little more than a depression in the landscape that fill with rain and snow melt in the spring, but dry up other times of year.

Looking at Atlantic City Electric’s transmission lines, some of which are in relatively remote areas of the county, “was like a lightbulb going off,” Clark said.

The DEP contacted Atlantic City Electric about creating more vernal ponds within its rights of way in Cape May County, mostly in Middle Township.

“Of course, they said they had to think about it first, but they came back and said yes,” Clark said.

“We are actually creating and augmenting habitat for salamanders,” said Cristina Frank, the lead environmental scientist for Atlantic City Electric.

She said this week that the project is still in the planning stages, but work will most likely begin this year.

The ponds won’t be created where the salamanders already are, but instead will be nearby, in what scientists believe is salamander walking distance.

Clark said little is known about how the amphibians get around, but it is believed some individuals will seek new breeding areas. Without roads nearby, the power line rights of way will offer safe corridors for the species to spread to the new ponds, biologists hope.

Frank said the utility does not know how much the project will cost. Clark suggested it will likely not be a huge expense.

“It’s not going to take a lot of effort. It’s not a heavy lift to get a lot of conservation value,” she said.

Most likely, the utility will use earth moving equipment to create the shallow indentations.

Neither Clark nor Frank wanted to get too specific as to where the new pools will be, or where the salamanders now live, other than that they were mostly in Middle Township.

“We don’t want to be exact about it, because this is a species that could be killed with kindness, or killed with interest,” said Clark. Frank said there could be a problem with collectors capturing the endangered animals.

Both the utility and the state agree that Atlantic City Electric had no obligation to do the work, and the project is not in exchange for consideration of another permit or anything else. Frank said the utility works with several groups on a number of projects.

She said this year’s weather has not been much help.

According to Clark, it was a tough year for biologists to gather data on the salamanders, because so many ponds were iced up for much of the year. 

The eastern tiger salamander is much larger than other salamanders in New Jersey, and the state’s entire population breeds in a handful of ponds, almost all of which are in Middle Township. photos courtesy New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection The eastern tiger salamander is much larger than other salamanders in New Jersey, and the state’s entire population breeds in a handful of ponds, almost all of which are in Middle Township. photos courtesy New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

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