ATLANTA, Ga. (AP) — A conservation success story is taking shape at an Atlanta nonprofit. It’s a first step – but a major one – in the effort to save an extremely rare southern species from extinction.
Nor is it a fuzzy or cuddly creature, nor a tall and majestic one.
But still, biologist Harold Mitchell said, “There’s something to be said for scary little critters.
The spooky crawler in this case is the frosty flatwood salamander, a shimmering black squiggle with silvery-white mottled stripes.
And the success is that after years of work to get them to breed in captivity, the salamanders have finally succeeded. They started hatching this week at the Amphibian Foundation in Atlanta.
Mark Mandica, executive director and co-founder of the organization, discovered during the Christmas holidays that the salamanders had laid eggs.
Or, more precisely, his son realized it, while following his father to work.
“He was just like, ‘Oh, I think there are eggs here,'” Mandica said. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, okay, whatever, I don’t know what he was seeing.'”
The eggs were there though. “I even get goosebumps right now just talking about it,” Mandica said.
Frosted flatwood salamanders were more common in southern swamp pine forests. But these forests have mostly disappeared, reduced by around 97% of their original area.
Frosted flatwood salamanders now live in the wild in two parks in Florida and a single wetland in Fort Stewart, near Savannah.
“Our estimates are that they may have another five or 10 years without significant conservation intervention before they go extinct,” Mandica said.
In addition to the loss of their forests, salamanders are threatened by climate change and more extreme weather, as well as the suppression of wildfires – they have evolved alongside fire. There are so few left that a single event poses major risks to the species. Hurricane Michael in 2018, for example, was a close call for people in Florida.
Several years ago, Mandica, in conjunction with state and federal wildlife agencies and other experts, collected eggs and larvae from the wild that would otherwise have dried up and died, and brought them back to Atlanta for raise them in captivity, as a safety measure.
He tried to replicate them, which no one else has figured out how to do so far.
Since December, salamanders at the Amphibian Foundation have laid about 70 eggs.
Mitchell, a species manager at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said when he found out the salamanders had bred, he felt like his team had won the Super Bowl.
“It’s actually huge in the idea of how to turn the corner and bring these things back from the brink of extinction,” he said.
Frosted flatwood salamanders are considered threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2014, Mitchell recommended changing their status to endangered. The agency has not made a decision on this. But Mandica said he believes they are clearly in danger. “It’s a very fragile species,” he said.
Now that the captives have bred, Mandica said, people working to save the species can think about next steps, like breeding them in other institutions as well.
“This realization kind of opened up those discussions in a new and exciting way,” Mandica said.
They would need to produce thousands of them to be able to reintroduce them into the wild – and they would also need suitable habitat to reintroduce them.
Mitchell said it’s a long-term effort that could take 20 years. He compared that success to the Wright Brothers’ first flight and what they’re trying to accomplish – restore this species and remove it from the endangered species list – to the space shuttle.
“But without that 12-second flight, there’s no path to the space shuttle,” he said.
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