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VLM Salamander Survey

The Virginia Living Museum participates in many conservation projects in various capacities. The Herpetology Department (reptiles & amphibians) leads 3 different projects throughout the year, including this Salamander Survey (see also Turtle Census & FrogWatchUSA). 

 

Annual Turtle Census – 3 weekends in June & July (left), FrogWatchUSA frog call monitoring – Feb-Aug (middle), Salamander Survey – Oct-Mar (right)

 

The VLM Salamander Survey started in fall of 2022 as a biomonitoring survey to determine which species of terrestrial salamanders are present at 4 small sample sites on VLM property. Each survey site consists of 50 ceramic tile squares which serve as moisture refuges for the salamanders who navigate the forest floor and the soil beneath. The animals use the tiles as feeding and breeding territories and can be checked routinely by research volunteers for the presence of salamanders. The goal of the project is to monitor forest floor salamander biodiversity, determining which species are present and in what density, and to include citizen scientists (VLM guests and volunteers) in the process of learning about the scientific process and the importance of these small creatures in their forest floor ecosystem.

VLM staff & volunteers checking tiles during one of our fall surveys. 

 

The primary focal species of this survey is the Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus). This small-bodied salamander is by far the most abundant and wide-ranging species across much of its range in the north-eastern United States. This species is a member of a family of lungless salamanders (known as Plethodontidae) that live in a terrestrial environment, despite not having lungs, and take in oxygen directly through their moist, permeable skin. For this reason, they require a moist habitat or refuge (under leaf litter or cover objects, like our tiles) to prevent drying out. This species is also territorial and polymorphic, meaning they have 2 genetically distinct color morphs: the red-striped phase (with a red stripe running down the center of the back) and the lead or unstriped phase (with no red stripe, and an otherwise unmarked black or metallic colored back). The red-backed salamander is small, growing to an adult size of 2-5 inches long, but plays a very important role in the forest floor food web as both a predator to the numerous soil microinvertebrates and prey to many birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles that inhabit eastern deciduous forests. 

A striped phase (left) and unstriped phase (right) adult Eastern red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus

 

Each salamander that is found under a tile is measured (length and mass), sexed (male or female), and given an individual identification number which corresponds to a marking code. The animal is then marked with a visual implant elastomer (VIE), which is essentially liquid that hardens into a rubbery implant that is visible through the skin of the animal, (don’t worry, this doesn’t hurt the animal… it’s similar to implanting a “low-tech” microchip). The research team can then use the marking to ID the animal in the future to track its growth, survival, territory use/site fidelity, and mate choice. In addition, some environmental data is also taken from each capture site including leaf litter depth, canopy cover, soil moisture and temperature, and air temperature and relative humidity. All of this data will be used to make inferences about environmental effects on salamander habitat use and surface activity patterns.

A red-backed salamander that has been marked with a VIE, which glows neon pink under a black light. 

 

The first season of salamander surveys has come to a close, but we hope to continue the survey next year and for years to come to monitor the animals long term. In the process we hope to educate volunteer scientists and VLM guests. In addition, we would like to use the tiles to survey other wildlife that may utilize the cover objects. Just since July of 2022, we already have a growing list of species using the tiles including fowler’s toads, 5-lined skinks, southern ringneck snakes, and a variety of spiders and other terrestrial invertebrates (we even found a box turtle at one of the sites!).  

Other species found utilizing tiles as cover objects include: juvenile Fowler’s Toads (top left), juvenile red-backed salamanders (top right), 5-lined skinks (bottom left), and southern ringneck snakes (bottom right). 

 

Check back for updates regarding participation in the next data collection season (October-March). Training of new volunteers begins in early fall (August/September). 

Volunteer group after a successful survey! 

Volunteers get experience talking to guests (top, volunteer – Larry) and collecting data (bottom left, volunteer – Dylan); and staff have fun too (bottom right, Sr Director of Living Exhibits – Jim)! 

 

This Salamander Survey project was started with the financial support of the Joseph C. Mitchell Grant in Herpetology awarded to the VLM Herpetology Curator (Kortney Jaworski) by the Herpetologists’ League in June 2022. All animal handling is done following approved protocols and under the permission of Virginia DWR and the Virginia Living Museum Animal Welfare Committee. 

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