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Old 16th July 2009   #1
Wes von Papinešu
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Default NJ Press: Biologists say endangered N.J. salamander's breeding areas threatened

STAR-LEDGER (Newark, New Jersey) 08 July 09 Biologists say endangered N.J. salamander's breeding areas threatened (Brian T. Murray)

This spring, researchers found just 12 eastern tiger salamander breeding areas -- and only in Cape May County. Biologists say the foot-long amphibian may be another victim of New Jersey sprawl.

"Their breeding areas are getting changed and their terrestrial upland habitat is getting built on," said Robert Zappalorti, executive director of Herpetological Associates Inc. in Ocean County and a specialist in threatened and endangered amphibians and reptiles.

In 1974, state officials had added the once-abundant amphibians on the endangered species list, as the salamanders retreated to 19 small breeding areas in isolated pockets of Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties.

But declaring the tiger salamanders an endangered species did not stop people from destroying the amphibians' habitats.

Now, 35 years later, things have gotten worse.

"It's like saying, 'You're protected as an individual, but as soon as you leave your house, we can level your house and your land,'" said Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audubon. "The major threat to species survival in New Jersey is habitat loss and destruction."

While environmental groups have battled for habitat preservation regulations, biologists with the state's tiny Endangered and Non-game Species Program have struggled to find ways to help the tiger salamander keep a toe-hold in South Jersey.

In the past, program officials tried to introduce the species to state-owned lands that are protected from development. But this year, program biologists experimented with another tactic -- creating a new home for the tiger salamander on privately owned land in Cape May.

Three years ago, biologists found evidence that salamanders had tried unsuccessfully to breed on the property in a vernal pool, a pocket in the landscape that temporarily filled with melting snow and rainwater each winter and spring.
"I found one adult the first year and a couple of egg masses," said Dave Golden, a zoologist with the state's endangered species program.

But the 30-foot-by-50-foot pool was too shallow. It dried out each spring, leaving the egg masses without enough water to hatch into larvae and swim.

"If you have ever seen a tiger salamander swim, they swim very much like an alligator or crocodile -- swimming not with their arms or legs, but with their tail, using it to propel them," Golden said.

So the state gave the tiger salamanders' pool a makeover. With the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biologists used an excavator to deepen the pool and improve the drainage last September.

When biologists returned to the site in January, the results were astonishing.

"We found 68 egg mass counts, which elevated this pond to one of the three best we had for egg masses this year. Each egg mass could hold up to 50 or more embryos, so multiply that by 68," Golden said.

In June, the young salamanders at the Cape May site began crawling out of the pool and on to dry land. If all is successful, most will return to the site in late fall to begin spawning a new generation.

Little is known about what the tiger salamanders do over the summer. They are known to stay cool by going deep into the loose, sandy soil of South Jersey by burrowing or using the tunnels made by other creatures. They emerge at night to snatch up passing crickets, beetles or spiders.

"It's a really neat animal -- a salamander that gets to be about 12 inches long and they are fairly fat, as thick as your thumb," Golden said. "They are known as a mole salamander, because they spend the majority of the year -- the summer and portions of the fall -- underground."

Tiger salamanders leave their burrows in late November and early December, usually during a chilly rain, to move toward the vernal pools. But in dry periods when the pools do not fill, the tiger salamanders simply do not breed, further complicating their battle for survival.

While the habitat enhancement effort in Cape May is a tiny success story, biologists say New Jersey's tiger salamanders still face larger challenges.

Even if their pools receive state protection, the salamanders -- who can live for 15 years -- spend much of their lives burrowing in the ground up to 1,000 feet away from the water.

That is a problem in New Jersey, where development is never far away. Even the newly enhanced Cape May pond is within clear view of a busy housing complex.

"A farmer or builder could be digging them up and never know it," said Zappalorti of Herpetological Associates.

Last edited by Kaysie; 16th July 2009 at 17:49. Reason: Separated paragraphs
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