Most of my wildlife photos came from one job. That job, in spite of allowing me a lot of time and access to wander around taking pictures, did have a goal: to find and document flatwoods salamanders on two state forests.
It had recently been discovered that the flatwoods salamander is actually two species, so recently that the current Petersen Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians still lists them as one species: Ambystoma cingulatum. A few years before I started the job, the populations west of the Apalachicola River were declared a separate species, the reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi). They were already rare as one species; this little offshoot was extremely rare. There were only about 36 known ponds where they had been found, and at many of those, none had been seen in years.
Flatwoods salamanders have a clever but risky reproductive strategy, which in rainy years gives them a big advantage, but in dry years means complete failure. They rely on the cold fronts that come through the Florida panhandle, bringing rain more or less regularly throughout the fall and winter.
On rainy nights in late fall, flatwoods salamanders come out of their burrows and make their way to ephemeral ponds, which are just shallow depressions in the woods. These aren’t really ponds yet, but they will be, if the rain keeps coming. Flatwoods salamanders lay their eggs before the ponds fill. This gives them a head start, so by the time other salamanders and dragonfly larvae are swimming around, the flatwoods salamanders are too big for them to eat.
Salamander eggs have no shells. They need a thick cover of grass and weeds to protect them from desiccation. So there’s another thing they need for good habitat: plants need sunlight. Which means the forest canopy can’t be completely closed, and the shrubs and small trees can’t be too thick. Luckily, the natural state of pine forests in Florida is open and grassy.
Florida’s ecosystems evolved with frequent fires, started by both lightning and humans. As a result, outside of wetlands, the natural plant life is either tolerant of or actually dependent on fire. The major tree of the uplands is the longleaf pine, a tree that is perfectly adapted to fire, as long as the fire is near the ground. It’s also adapted to keep fire on the ground: there are no low branches to help the flames spread up to the crown, and the mature trees are naturally spaced far apart, so even if one is engulfed, the ones around it won’t burn, too. This has the bonus effect of letting sunlight reach the ground, which lets plenty of (fire-tolerant) grass grow, which lets the fire spread out along the ground and kill the competition.
Unfortunately, very little of the forest is still in its natural state. The problem with much of it, and this will sound ridiculous when talking about a forest, is that it has too many trees. Not enough sunlight reaches the ground for grass to grow, and animals that depend on the grass have nowhere to hide or nothing to eat.
I sought out the grassiest, most open ponds, but in four years of trying, I never found a flatwoods salamander on the forests I surveyed. Three of the four winters were too dry for many of the ponds to fill in the first place, and those that did dried within a few weeks. Not long enough for a salamander to go from egg to adult. I did catch other animals: mole and dwarf salamanders; newts; cricket, leopard, little grass, and ornate chorus frogs; Southern and oak toads, Eastern spadefoots; garter snakes and pigmy rattlesnakes. At the end of every season, I would start out my report by stating that I had not found any flatwoods salamanders, and then describing all the animals I did find.
Even though it was fun, it was also kind of depressing. How many drought years in a row could a population survive? Was I just missing them, or were they just not there? Were they extinct on both my sites? I’d asked my counterparts on other sites if they had found any, and they had not. Had the reticulated flatwoods salamander gone extinct almost as soon as it was discovered?
One rainy night, I was asked to help set traps around a little pond on Eglin Air Force Base. This was the pond where the last known reticulated flatwoods salamanders had been caught. But the previous fall had been another drought year, and the researchers there had had no luck. Still, if there were flatwoods salamanders in the area, this was the best chance I had to see one. I drove out there after work, met the young grad student who was trapping them.
Their methods were different from ours. We had partially circled 20 ponds with our fences, and along each fence we placed six traps: on each side, one at each end and one in the center. On non-trapping nights, an animal could just follow the fence to the end and then be on its way. We could leave our partial fences up all season, but this meant we only ever caught the fraction of animals that ran into the fence on their way in or out of the pond.
Because these researchers had only one pond to deal with, they completely surrounded it with a silt fence, leaving gaps here and there that they closed on trapping nights. They had dozens of traps along this fence. This meant we would catch every single animal coming in or out of the pond. If salamanders were moving tonight, we would catch them. The student and I closed up the gaps and set our traps along it in the rain. Then we waited an hour in the truck.
After an hour we went and checked them. We only had a cricket frog. I shook it out of the trap on the other side of the fence. We went back to the truck and sat and waited some more.
The second time around, I picked up my first trap and saw something dark moving in the corner. I maneuvered it around and finally just reached in and took it out.
It looked a bit like the mole salamanders I’d been catching all this time, but not enough to mistake it for one. Longer, thinner, with net-like markings instead of dots. And slippery! I almost dropped it before the grad student could get out his ruler and measure it.
The next trap had one, too. And the next. We caught more than twenty that night. Not only were they not extinct, but it looked like there were enough to keep the population alive at least another year.
My photo is blurry, because it was dark and raining and the salamander was slimy. But, look: Ambystoma bishopi lives!