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Virginia tries to save salamander with lineage dating back to ice age

THE WASHINGTON POST – The Eastern tiger salamander had lived in the mid-Atlantic region since the ice ages: Its presence can be traced back 14,000 years along Virginia’s coastal plains, and 400,000 years in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the United States.

But after centuries of habitat destruction, the black and yellowish-green salamander is listed as endangered in the Delmarva Peninsula region, found only on private lands east of Interstate 95.

Now experts are working to bring them back.

“You’re talking about one of the last surviving relics of the last ice age for the salamanders mountain lineage,” said herpetologist J D Kleopfer with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources. “This is a rare salamander that should be a part of our ecosystem.”

His office is working to relocate some salamander larvae from parts of North Carolina to Southeastern Virginia in hope of replenishing the population. They won’t know for four to five years if it’s successful.

Crews work to restore an area in Virginia in hope that it will become a breeding ground for a rare salamander. PHOTO: VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE RESOURCES

At roughly nine inches long, Eastern tiger salamanders typically live near ponds in forested areas.What’s unique about them, experts said, is that they spend roughly nine months a year in burrows they dig about two feet below the ground. They eat worms, insects, mice and voles. When heavy rains come in early winter, they typically emerge from underground and migrate up to half a mile to lay their eggs in wetland areas, experts said.

It takes an Eastern tiger salamander about five to six months to develop from an egg to an adult.

Fish and beetles often eat them before they’re able to fully develop. Poor water quality or too much – or too little – rainfall can be dangerous and even deadly.

“If they lay in a pond that dries out too quickly, they don’t make it,” said wildlife ecologist Scott Smith at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “They can’t have too much wet or too much cold because they can freeze.”

Smith said he’s worried that with climate change causing more sporadic rains or intense drought followed by massive storms, the environment may be too unstable for salamanders to breed and survive in ponds. They’ve also lost some of the spots where they once bred.

In Virginia, a landowner in the Northern Neck area had an old mill and a nearby dam that was a popular breeding site for Eastern salamanders more than six decades ago.

But the dam had eroded, and salamanders stopped breeding there. Kleopfer said experts worked with the landowner to repair the dam last fall, and they’re hoping salamanders return. In Maryland, the Eastern tiger salamander has made a comeback after decades of efforts to bring them back. Experts have been monitoring the population since the 1990s and relocated them as needed. Present in only seven spots when conservation efforts began, they can now be found at 21 sites on the Eastern Shore.

In Caroline County, Smith said there have been a record number of salamander egg masses.

Maryland authorities have also tried to work with landowners to make sure they have habitats that are attractive to salamanders. At one spot in Kent County, experts worked with a landowner who’d harvested timber, bringing in heavy equipment that caused the salamander population there to crash.

Smith said they helped the landowner manage trees and vegetation so there were good nesting spots for salamanders, and the population is on the rebound. “We’ve been working on this for 20 years,” Smith said. “It’s not easily solved overnight.”

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