Striped newt discovery excites scientists

August 17th, 2015 by Red Hills

Dixe bioblitz wetlands

Feature story by Jennifer Portman, Tallahassee Democrat, August 10, 2015

The early-May trip to Dixie Plantation was intended to be one of fun, educational exploration, not serious scientific discovery.

As part of a Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy fundraiser silent-auction prize, conservation biologist Kim Sash and her partner, Pierson Hill, volunteered to take a group of grown-ups and kids on a weekend herpetology adventure at its newly acquired Jefferson County plantation.

Armed with large dip nets, they bounced around in the back of pick-up trucks from one pond to the next, looking for slithery, skittery critters.

Out of the knee-deep, tea-colored water, Sash and Hill found the morphing amphibians they expected to find — treefrog tadpoles, pinewoods treefrog tadpoles, mole salamander larvae.

Sure, there was a chance they’d find something unusual. The dozen or so ephemeral wetlands on Dixie’s 9,100 acres hadn’t been explored before. The work of conservation biology often documents the end of species, but there’s always a chance.

The very first morning at the very first pond, Hill, a threatened and endangered species biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, found six amphibian larvae in 15 minutes. Less than an inch long, they were too small to identify, but he decided to keep one, throw it in a tank at home and watch it grow.

“Biologists’ intuition,” Sash said.

Late last month the hunch paid off. The couple looked in the tank one morning and saw the tell-tale red stripes of the striped newt – an elusive and imperiled species thought to have disappeared from its western range in Florida.

“It took me by surprise; I didn’t expect it be there,” Hill said of the random catch. “I kept the one (larvae) in the off chance that was a striped newt, and it turned out to be. You just have to be at the right place at the right time.”

Undiscovered country

The discovery at Dixie of a species on the brink of extinction has generated excitement among scientists and land conservancy advocates who are eager to see what other secret creatures might be lurking in the Red Hills’ vast patchwork of undeveloped private lands.

“We don’t know what resides on all these private lands,” Sash said. “I want to do a full-scale ephemeral-wetlands survey in the Red Hills, because I think there are a lot of things that are undiscovered.”

This winter, FWC is planning a comprehensive survey to determine how prevalent the striped newt is at Dixie.

Part of the reason Hill and Sash think the newt has remained at the plantation is because the land has been managed with beneficial fire, which is integral to maintaining the natural ecosystem of the Red Hills.

Without regular burns, the small, isolated, fish-free wetlands would become choked with scrub and brush, crowding out grasses newts need to lay eggs and which foster the abundant insect life they need for nourishment.

“Dixie is kind of a standout even among private lands because the land manager was making an effort to burn through these small wetlands,” Hill said. “Proper management of these private lands is so important.”

Sash hopes the extraordinary finding sparks exploration of other parts of the historic hunting-plantation region that spans six counties in north Florida and southern Georgia.

Such documentation is important because it could bolster protection and conservation of the striped newt. It is considered a “species of greatest conservation need” in Florida, is “threatened” in Georgia and is a candidate for listing on the federal endangered species list.

Repatriating the newt

If a robust population is found at Dixie or elsewhere in the area, it could be used to help an ongoing effort to repatriate the species to its former stronghold just south of Tallahassee in the Munson Sandhills of the Apalachicola National Forest.

Ryan Means and his wife Rebecca of the Coastal Plains Institute have been working for the last five years to reintroduce the newts to the sandhills, which by 2007 had vanished. The Meanses have relied on zoo-bred specimens from one of the two last remaining wetlands in Georgia where the newts can still be found.

This year, 692 newt larvae were put into six ponds in the sandhills and 24 transformed land-dwelling “efts” were observed scampering into the uplands where they live their solitary lives before returning to the wetland to reproduce.

Ryan Means said the discovery of an outlying population of striped newts at Dixie doesn’t mean the species is any less at risk. But it is great news.

“Anybody who cares about imperiled-species conservation would be excited to hear about this,” he said. “As scientists, we have to concede it’s not possible to sample everywhere all the time.

“This kind of story might just build a bridge between private land owners and scientists who wish to sample all lands to find rare species and try to develop a more accurate status for rare or imperiled species.”

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