Saving a species: the salamander breeds in captivity for the first time
ATLANTA—The Amphibian Foundation has successfully bred one of the world’s most endangered species, the Frosted Flatwood Salamander, in captivity for the first time. The Atlanta-based nonprofit’s success marks the first phase of a conservation strategy to save a unique species from imminent extinction.
Amphibian Foundation staff have been working for nearly a decade on a captive breeding protocol to protect frosty flatwood salamanders (Ambystoma cingulatum). The species has declined by about 90% since 2000 and is now only known from three populations, one in Georgia and two in Florida. The salamander was listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in 1999. The ultimate goal is to produce offspring that can be released into a managed habitat and thrive in the wild.
The Frosted Flatwood Salamander is difficult to raise in the laboratory due to its secretive nature and limited information about its lifestyle. Amphibian Foundation executive director and co-founder Mark Mandica said other organizations can replicate the foundation’s successful captive-breeding protocol, accelerating the recovery process.
“This conservation achievement is an exciting moment of scientific achievement for our team, our partners and these special salamanders,” Mandica said.
Mandica began discussing the urgent need for a Frosted Flatwood Salamander propagation or rearing program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012. Two years later, the federal agency asked him to lead a program captive insurance for the species. Captive insurance refers to a drastic measure to which a species at high risk of extinction must be protected in captivity until other conservation and restoration measures can guarantee the persistence of the species in the wild. nature.
The Amphibian Foundation established the first potential breeding groups of Frosted Flatwood Salamander in 2017. It takes years to raise eggs into active breeding adults. By December, the groups had produced 24 eggs in the lab. Since then, Mandica has counted nearly 70 eggs, many of which are healthy.
Harold Mitchell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologist and agency lead for Frosted Flatwood Salamander recovery, called the latest news “an incredible achievement by the dedicated staff of the Amphibian Foundation.”
“It’s on the same level of conservation as the captive achievements of the American ferret and California condor, which were on the verge of extinction and are now on the road to recovery,” Mitchell said.
Frosted flatwood salamanders became extinct primarily due to the loss of the southeastern longleaf pine ecosystem, which shrank to 3% of its original range. The species was originally found in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Today, there are only two populations left in Florida and one in a single wetland in Georgia. Salamanders have not been detected in South Carolina for over 12 years.
In addition to habitat loss, the salamander population decline has been exacerbated by erratic weather patterns. The species breeds at the edge of dry temporary pools in swamp pine savannas. The eggs hatch when seasonal rains fill the small pools. When the tanks are not filled, the eggs do not hatch and that year’s offspring are lost. This happens more often, which shortens the breeding season for the species.
The work done at the Amphibian Foundation is an important step toward being able to repopulate restored habitats throughout the salamander’s range, according to Daniel Sollenberger, senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “We are pleased to have been able to support the project by providing natural vegetation for the breeding enclosures, and we look forward to seeing the considerable successes that will follow,” Sollenberger said.
The Amphibian Foundation has worked closely with many partners to establish the captive propagation colonies. In addition to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, these partners included the US Geological Survey, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the US Army’s Fort Stewart, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia, the Orianne Society, and others.
The Amphibian Foundation currently has two groups of Frosted Flatwood Salamanders that produce eggs. One group was rescued from desiccation by Florida Fish and Wildlife, brought to the foundation, and raised in the lab from eggs. The other group was cooperatively rescued as larvae from the species’ last wetland in Georgia. The pond dries up too quickly for the larvae to complete their metamorphosis.
“The successful propagation is a great accomplishment of the Amphibian Foundation and we are very happy to hear this unstoppable news,” said Bradley O’Hanlon, Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife. “We look forward to continued partnership and collaboration to support the recovery of the species in the wild.”
The captive propagation colony is in the Foundation’s Conservation Laboratory, which is supported by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy, the Turner Foundation, and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation.
Mandica attributed this success to passionate and supportive partnerships, focus and perseverance.
“We at the Amphibian Foundation value and value everyone’s contributions and are excited to collaborate with other partners as we move forward to help the extraordinary Frosted Flatwood Salamander thrive in the wild. “
The Amphibian Foundation collaborates with partners in the fight against amphibian extinction. The organization founded by Mandica and his wife Crystal focuses on leading unique conservation research programs to address amphibian threats.