by Kent Williges
Upland Habitat biologists have been busy during the last several months working in ephemeral ponds scattered throughout the panhandle. Situated within longleaf pine savannas, these isolated, temporary herbaceous ponds are used by flatwoods salamanders for breeding.
Adult salamanders spend most of their lives underground in the savanna uplands, but migrate to breeding ponds on rainy nights during October – December. In 2007, it was discovered that the flatwoods salamander is actually two species that are geographically separated by the Apalachicola River. Thus, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service amended its listing of the flatwoods salamander to include the frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum; occurs east of Apalachicola River) as a threatened species, and the reticulated Flatwoods Salamander (A. bishop; found west of the Apalachicola) as an endangered species in 2009. Loss and alteration/degradation of habitat are considered the main causes of population declines. The longleaf pine-wiregrass flatwoods and savannas, where the salamander historically occurred, has been reduced to less than 20 percent of its original extent.
There is much qualitative data available regarding the preferred flatwoods salamander breeding habitat. Both species prefer ponds with open tree canopies, and dense herbaceous vegetation for egg deposition, especially basal rosette-forming herbaceous plants such as pipeworts (Eriocaulon spp), witchgrasses (Dichanthelium spp.), and yellow-eyed grasses (Xyris spp). Vertical structure provided by the stems of beaksedges (Rhynchospora spp.) and fleabanes (Erigeron spp.) are also important, and perhaps function as refuge for larvae. These plants typically occur in the ecotone between the wetland and surrounding upland wiregrass savanna. Adult salamanders and recent metamorphs have also been observed using wiregrass (Aristida stricta) on the upland side of this ecotone. Although all life stages are of the flatwoods salamander are known to be tied to the herbaceous ecotones surrounding ephemeral ponds, there has been little quantitative research conducted on their vegetative characteristics, especially with regard to how they respond to habitat management actions.
The purpose of our project is to quantify vegetation characteristics—such as plant species composition, abundance, and distribution—that have been qualitatively described for flatwoods salamander nesting habitat. Eighteen ephemeral ponds representing a variety of habitat conditions throughout the panhandle were recommended by area biologists as study sites based on past salamander occupancy. Upland Habitat will monitor these sites for three years in order to capture responses of vegetation to management actions, such as prescribed fire and overstory/midstory thinning, applied during the study period. This data can be used to guide management decisions throughout the salamander’s range in the southeast.