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Oldest salamander gives hope for endangered species

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Nature > Researchers ponder creature’s relationship to fire

By Arin McKenna

The Jemez Mountain Salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus) is a rare creature found only in the Jemez Mountains.

“It’s kind of this fantastic animal. You wouldn’t think salamander and New Mexico in the same breath, but here we’ve got this animal that only lives in our Jemez Mountains,” said Nature Conservancy Forest Conservation Program Manager Anne Bradley.

“It only comes out during the monsoons and unlike many other salamanders. it does not need water for any part of its life cycle. So it lays its eggs somewhere out there in the woods under logs or whatever, and it breeds and maintains its whole life up there in the forest, so that makes it kind of unique.”

The salamander does not have lungs, so it is dependent on moisture in the environment to keep its skin moist enough to breathe through. Therefore it spends most of its life underground, only coming to the surface and becoming active during the monsoons. Even then, it shelters under logs or rocks so it has some sort of protection from the environment. Its diet consists of mites, crickets, beetles and ants.

The Jemez Mountain Salamander is on the endangered species list under the State of New Mexico Wildlife Conservation Act, and is proposed for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act. That determination is anticipated in September.

The state listing protects the salamander from being killed, captured or harassed. The federal listing would also protect critical habitat.

So it is easy to imagine the excitement of the New Mexico Endemic Salamander Team when they discovered the oldest known salamander during a survey in mid-July. The team does trainings for groups from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Bandelier National Monument and Jemez Pueblo to survey for the species in their areas, as well as for those who might affect habitat with such activities as laying pipelines.

“When we actually found what we believe is the oldest salamander ever documented, we were conducting a training session for other biologists, land managers and consultants on how to actually conduct surveys,” said New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Terrestrial Habitat Specialist Mark Watson. The first day of training was in the classroom, the second was in the field.

“We hiked everybody up this ridge, and within five minutes of our surveys —we’d broken up into four different teams —we’d found this salamander under a rather small Douglas fir branch, which they seem to prefer.”
Mitch East, from the University of New Mexico’s Natural Heritage New Mexico found the salamander. Michele Christman, species recovery biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spotted the tag.

“That meant that it was very old. Our state herpetologist, Charlie Painter, had conducted a mark and recapture study in this location between 1990 and 2000, where they found Jemez Mountain Salamanders and marked all of them, and did individual color markings on them,” Watson said.

Christman believes the tag was from a 1998 marking (although that has not been confirmed), which would make the salamander approximately 18 years old. Only mature salamanders of at least two years old were marked.

Even if the salamander was marked in 2000, the final year, it would be 15 years old.

“One of the nice things to know is that old salamander lived through drought and fire and he popped up again,” Bradley said. “So to me, that’s a very hopeful sign.”

The Nature Conservancy has been working with Game and Fish and the Wildlife Service on other issues related to protection, with the help of Collaborative Forest Restoration Program grants.

The group is supportive of controlled burns to bring the forest into a healthier state, but was concerned about the impact on the salamander.

They’ve used grant money to bring together fire and forest experts with salamander biologists, as well as hire an expert from the University of Arizona to conduct tree ring studies to evaluate fire history. The hope is that that will give a better understanding of the salamander’s relationship to natural fire cycles.

“We’re very curious, because obviously this animal evolved with fire. Fire has been in the Jemez Mountains forever,” Bradley said. “We know the fires we’ve had recently are sort of out of whack, bigger and more severe than what would have been the norm in the past, before fire suppression.”

The Conservancy has also trained a salamander team from the Pueblo of Jemez. They are hoping the team can survey the Las Conchas burn and possibly the Thompson Ridge burn area to see how the salamanders fared after those fires.

As to the salamander that created all the excitement, he is safely home.

“We did take that guy back on Sunday and put him right back under the little stick we found him under,” Watson said. “And then I think it rained a bunch, so hopefully he’s doing well.”