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Old 15th May 2008   #1
Wes von Papinešu
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Default VA Press: UMW team's survey of salamanders has legs

FREE LANCE STAR (Fredericksburg, Virginia) 12 May 08 UMW team's survey of salamanders has legs (Laura Moyer)
With a swift swoop, Michael Killian scoops a squirming newt from the rocky bottom of Persimmon Run.
It's a mature male Eastern newt, and the female is nearby. Once Killian returns the male to the water, the two amphibians may mate.
This Fauquier County creek, which runs through the C.F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area, is loaded with aquatic newts and salamanders. Their nearby terrestrial relatives also are plentiful, roaming the woodland floor amid dead leaves and new growth.
On this Friday afternoon, like many others, University of Mary Washington Department of Biological Sciences lecturer Killian and visiting assistant professor Jay McGhee are here to observe and record.
Virginia is known to have 55 distinct species of salamanders and newts. Over the past year, Killian and McGhee have documented 11 of those species at Phelps. They're halfway through a two-year study that seeks to determine what species of salamanders live at Phelps, where they live, how they affect their environment and how their environment affects them.
McGhee, 36, came to UMW last year and started the salamander survey as a way to involve students in meaningful research. It's important to study salamanders, he says, because amphibians worldwide are in decline--vulnerable to habitat fragmentation and loss, pollution and other factors. And there was scarce long-term data on salamander diversity and health in the Rappahannock River watershed.
Each week McGhee and Killian, 57, make at least one trip to Phelps. They were aided this past semester by freshman student researcher Carly Byers.
At randomly selected sites they pinpoint on a GPS, they conduct 1-meter-square searches in creeks or streams, and similar searches on land. They also do "natural cover object" searches, lifting logs and rocks that salamanders hide under.
In each of the searches, they're careful to leave the site as they found it, returning pebbles, mud and sand to the creek bed, and leaf detritus and insects to the forest floor.
This day they drive deep into the refuge, then unload Killian's pickup truck near Persimmon Run.
Two backpacks hold their equipment, which includes several nets, the GPS unit, a plastic quadrat that will define each meter-square search area, a sling psychometer to measure humidity, a soil thermometer and a pH meter.
They trudge through brambles and poison ivy to find their starting point. Then they wade into the creek and start searching.
They spot plenty of salamanders and newts swimming nearby, but today they're interested only in the specimens in their specific study areas. Randomness is important, they say; otherwise, they might search just the newtiest, salamanderiest areas and bias the study.
"Even in sites where you don't expect to find much, you try to give the same amount of effort," Killian says.
The meter-square creek searches this day yield no salamanders, though they do turn up a crawfish, dragonfly larvae and a cricket frog.
The land searches also come up empty; it's a dry day, and terrestrial salamanders may have gone several inches under the soil to find moisture.
McGhee and Killian do find plenty of poison ivy, a peril of the profession, and they work gingerly around it wearing rubber gloves.
Once the pinpoint surveys are complete, Killian and McGhee seek out a few specimens outside the study area to show Phelps manager Joe Ferdinandson, who's helping out this day, and a visiting reporter and photographer.
The most unusual is a three-lined salamander, about 4 inches long, with an intact tail--a characteristic that shows it hasn't shed portions of tail to escape predators. They also find a couple of red-backed salamanders under a rotting log.
And there are the newts, whose grayish backs glimmer with red dots. They'll mate, and their eggs will hatch into red efts, bright-orange offspring whose colors will subdue as they mature.
It's not always a fun job. There are cold nighttime searches, rainy-day searches, and searches deep within bramble patches. Ticks and mosquitoes abound.
But on this breezy spring afternoon, with a prairie warbler providing background music, it seems pretty idyllic.
"There are a lot of days when you kind of have to convince yourself to come out here, but you leave relaxed," McGhee says. "You're out here getting your hands dirty doing what you've trained, to do, and it kind of gives you perspective."

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