As many of you know, FWRI held our first ever virtual MarineQuest in October. In case you missed it, we wanted to share the work our biologists are doing on North Atlantic right whale research — they’ll explain how the populations are monitored off Florida’s coasts, the biggest threats for the species, and how citizens can help.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is pleased to announce an expansion of recreational fishing surveys to collect enhanced data for reef fishes. The new State Reef Fish Survey (SRFS) builds on proven success along the Gulf Coast of Florida. The Gulf Reef Fish Survey (GRFS) was implemented in 2015 to provide more timely and precise data needed to manage and assess important reef fish stocks, which has supported enhanced recreational fishing opportunities along the west coast of Florida. The expanded statewide survey replaced GRFS and started July 1, 2020, which means that anglers and spear fishers are now able to contribute to improving data for important fish stocks along the Keys and Atlantic Coast of Florida, as well as the Gulf. SRFS will use several methods to collect vital information on recreational fishing for reef fishes, including a mail survey, in-person interviews, and at-sea observations.
The SRFS mail survey collects information on the types of reef fish that are important to anglers and divers who fish recreationally in Florida and helps gauge how often people participate in these economically important activities throughout the state. Anyone with the State Reef Fish Angler designation may receive a questionnaire in the mail that asks about saltwater recreational fishing activities over the past month. A new set of participants will be randomly selected each month, which means that individuals are only asked to provide this information periodically. The new State Reef Fish Angler designation is required for anyone 16 years of age and older to legally harvest certain reef fish when fishing recreationally from a privately-operated boat in Florida. This requirement is in addition to applicable saltwater recreational fishing license requirements.
The previous Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation was required on the west coast of Florida to legally harvest: red snapper, vermilion snapper, gray triggerfish, gag, red grouper, black grouper, greater and lesser amberjacks, banded rudderfish, and almaco jack. Three additional species are included in the new statewide requirement: hogfish, mutton snapper, and yellowtail snapper. Anyone with a State Reef Fish Angler designation may harvest all 13 reef fish species anywhere in Florida, in accordance with all applicable size and bag limits, seasons, and gear requirements. Anglers and spear fishers with a valid Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation will have all the same privileges as the statewide designation and do not need to sign up again until it is time to renew. At the time of renewal, make sure to request the new State Reef Fish Angler designation.
In-person interviews will be conducted by FWC biologists at boat ramps and marinas throughout the state to collect detailed information on the numbers and types of reef fishes harvested during recreational fishing. Interviews will be conducted at sites where recreational boat parties that target reef fishes are more likely to return, and these data will supplement interviews also conducted over a larger number of sites as part of the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). The FWC is a cooperative partner in this national survey, administered through NOAA Fisheries, that provides vital statistics for a wide variety of state- and federally-managed saltwater finfish in Florida. By supplementing the national survey, FWC biologists will intercept anglers and spear fishers that specifically target reef fish species more frequently. These types of trips are less common than those targeting popular near-shore species, such as seatrout, red drum, flounder, and snook. Using the dockside interview data in combination with the mail portion of SRFS, described above, will enable FWC to provide a more precise measure of the total numbers of reef fishes harvested and released during recreational fishing in Florida. On the Gulf Coast, this has led to longer recreational fishing seasons in state and federal waters for red snapper and greater flexibility for managers to re-open the fishery when a season is impacted by weather and other unforeseen factors. On the Atlantic Coast of Florida, FWC will continue enhanced survey efforts during federal harvest seasons for red snapper in addition to the new SRFS. The enhanced survey efforts are still needed to closely track red snapper landings in-season, and the new survey will provide more precise estimates for fish released year-round.
In addition to the mail survey and dockside interviews, anglers fishing recreationally from for-hire vessels may also be accompanied by an FWC biologist to observe reef fishes that are released at-sea. This information provides important insight into the overall health of fish stocks, how many fish will be available to harvest in future years, and how well fish survive following catch-and-release. Information provided through the mail survey, dockside interviews, and at-sea observations will also help fishery managers better understand the relative importance of artificial and natural reef habitats in Florida.
Recreational fishing is a valued past-time for Floridians and is an important driver for the economy of this state. Together, all of the data collected through the new State Reef Fish Survey will provide a clearer picture of the health of reef fish stocks throughout the state and help ensure the long-term sustainability of recreational fishing in Florida.
Survivorship and Productivity of Florida Sandhill Cranes on Conservation Lands and Suburban Areas in Florida
The Florida sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis pratensis) is a familiar sight for residents and visitors alike to areas of Florida, but unfortunately, they are becoming less familiar. Faced with substantial population decline due to habitat loss, Florida sandhill cranes have also experienced long periods of drought and degradation of remaining habitat, which has all contributed to their decline. This study will compare adult crane habitat use, survival, and reproduction between suburban and conservation areas, with an emphasis on identifying specific causes of mortality. Additionally, researchers will also determine vegetation associations used by cranes in suburban habitats and conservation areas from movement data.
Non-migratory sandhill cranes were once widely distributed across the southeast and into the Caribbean, however, the species was extirpated from most of its natural range by the early 1900s. Conversion of prairie to agriculture or development, draining of wetlands, and overhunting were and are the main factors threatening sandhill cranes. Spatial models suggest the total available Florida sandhill crane habitat declined 42% between 1974 and 2003. The Florida sandhill crane is currently listed as State Threatened and as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan.
Florida sandhill cranes inhabit open areas, typically prairie and pastureland in the uplands and shallow marshes with emergent vegetation in wetland areas. Most preferred Florida sandhill crane habitat is privately owned and can be lost through development at any time. As the amount of preferred habitat has declined, an increasing number of Florida sandhill cranes have inhabited suburban and urban areas, such as airports, residential subdivisions and golf courses. Cranes in these areas may face additional challenges compared to birds in natural areas. For example, cranes require water levels sufficient to protect nests and themselves from terrestrial predators but low enough to prevent nests and roosts from flooding. In suburban areas, cranes often use man-made ponds or water retention areas that can receive large amounts of water run-off from developed sites (e.g., highways, lawns, golf courses and buildings) resulting in rapid increases in water levels that cause nest failure or leave the areas too deep to be utilized. Other threats to suburban cranes include domestic pets, automobile traffic, fences, human disturbance and environmental contaminants. This project was developed to assess threats to the survival and productivity of Florida sandhill cranes in suburban areas compared to the same parameters for conservation areas.
To capture cranes, FWRI researchers survey areas for cranes then learn their routine or bait the area if necessary. Researchers then capture the cranes using a hand-held net gun, ground snares or by simple hand grabbing. After capture, cranes are radio-tagged and color-banded, which is helpful for researchers for visual and radio monitoring after release. Cranes are captured and marked from April through October, before the arrival of migratory sandhill cranes that overwinter in Florida. Currently, FWRI has cranes marked from Marion County in the north to Highlands County in the south, Pasco County in the west and to Indian River County in the east.
This project seeks to fill important gaps in our understanding of Florida sandhill crane ecology identified in the Florida Sandhill Crane Species Action Plan. Causes of population decline are not well understood, so this project will benefit cranes by providing habitat use, survival, and productivity data for unstudied habitats (e.g., conservation areas and urban/suburban habitats) needed for development and implementation of management and conservation recommendations.
About halfway complete, this project has radio-tagged their target sample size (n=17) of suburban cranes, and 15 of 17 conservation land birds. Researchers have color-banded 49 cranes, out of a goal of 100+ before the project ends, which is set for June 30, 2021. Data generated from this project will be used to develop conservation recommendations and initiate plans to conserve Florida sandhill cranes. Future research may involve tagging young-of-the-year cranes in suburban and conservation areas to compare survival and movements of these birds to those from past studies of similar aged cranes on improved pastureland.
Key partners for this project include the State Wildlife Grants, the Bernard Lewis Charitable Foundation, Florida State Forest Service, Florida State Parks, Lake County Parks and Trails, Orlando Wetlands Park and St. John’s River Water Management District. FWRI researchers could not have initiated, nor can they complete this project, without the assistance of these partners.
Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch – Linked with Limulus
Ancient and distinctive, most Floridians recognize the American horseshoe crab (Limulus Polyphemus) in our marine waters by its smooth, helmet like carapace, scientists refer to as the prosoma. Perhaps surprising to many Floridians, the stock status of horseshoe crabs is poorly understood, thus spurring on the need for this study. The program is a collaboration with Florida Sea Grant, and several NGOs across the state that engages citizens in monitoring established horseshoe crab spawning beaches through the citizen science group, “Linked with Limulus.” Volunteers are a vital part of this study, so engaging volunteer coordinators in coastal Florida counties to establish new volunteer groups is a priority. The data from this study will be incorporated into the next Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Horseshoe Crab Benchmark Stock Assessment and inform state managers, in Florida and beyond, to population and spawning trends.
Horseshoe crabs are important for several reasons: shorebirds rely on their eggs as a primary food source during their long migrations (the decrease in horseshoe crab abundance has contributed to notable declines of many shorebird species); they are used as bait in the eel and whelk fisheries; and are of extreme importance in the biomedical industry – their copper-based blue blood is used to test the sterility of all injectable drugs and medical equipment.
Surveying horseshoe crab spawning beaches provides much needed data on spawning population trends, sex ratios and other biologically important information. Like sea turtles, they come ashore to sandy beaches to mate and lay eggs. Beaches are surveyed in the spring and fall, during the full and new moon at high tide, coinciding with peak spawning. At each beach, volunteers survey 3 consecutive days around the new and full moons. Data collected during each survey includes number of animals, mating pairs or aggregations, and any tagged animals. A subsample of crabs is collected for tagging with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service horseshoe crab tag. Prior to tagging, sex, age, prosoma width, weight, injuries, and mating status is recorded.
Current sampling areas include beaches in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Brevard, Manatee, Volusia, Indian River, Martin, Franklin, Nassau, Dixie, Levy, and Taylor counties. FWC is actively working to incorporate sites in Monroe, Charlotte, Lee, Palm Beach, Collier, Miami-Dade, and Broward counties.
The paucity of Florida-specific data have not allowed the State of Florida to conduct Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico population assessments, and further limited the capacity of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission horseshoe crab stock assessments. The stock status of Florida horseshoe crabs is poorly understood, due to the limited amount of targeted fishery sampling along the Atlantic coast. In addition to the scientific goals, volunteer involvement from the public has increased knowledge of biology and fishery specific issues, and further supported conservation of Florida natural resources.
Training events are held to train volunteer coordinators on how to conduct surveys, manage volunteer involvement, develop sampling schedules and train volunteers. Volunteer training events educate and train volunteers on horseshoe crab biology and management, as well as the importance of collecting scientifically accurate data.
FWRI staff and Florida Sea Grant/ IFAS will continue finding interested persons willing to serve as volunteer coordinators in coastal counties with horseshoe crab populations. Criteria for site selection is determined by using public reporting data collected since 2002. Training events will be scheduled to specifically train volunteer coordinators on how to educate, and train volunteers on the scientific collection of data, coordinate sampling events and select sampling locations. Additionally, volunteer training events will be held to properly educate and train citizens who will be collecting seasonal horseshoe crab spawning data. In addition, the trained coordinators and volunteers will be responsible for the collection of data from 21 established beaches, in 6 locations as well as 5 locations, and 14 beaches to be added at the beginning of the funding period. Beaches are surveyed each year in the spring and fall coinciding with peak spawning, the full moon and high tides. At each beach, volunteers will survey 3 consecutive days around the new and full moons.
Florida Sea Grant is a key partner in this project. Claire Crowley serves as principal investigator from FWRI. Berlynna Heres is the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch coordinator and organizes all volunteer coordinators throughout the state, conducts trainings, and actively samples at beaches on the west coast of Florida. Savanna Berry, researcher with the University of Florida Sea Grant/IFAS, serves as the Cedar Key volunteer coordinator, and worked extensively to develop protocols, and training videos, used at all locations.
User Opinions of Hydrilla and Hydrilla Management at Lake Harris
By Daniel Nelson
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) was introduced to Florida in the 1950’s and impacted over 140,000 acres of waterways by the early 1990’s (University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences). The rapid spread of this aquatic plant can be attributed to the plant’s ability to establish new infestations based on small fragments, grow an inch or more a day, and grow in deeper water due to lower light requirements. These factors, among others, allow the plant to quickly out-compete other native aquatic plants, quickly developing a monoculture of submerged plants.
The rapid growth of hydrilla creates dense mats of vegetation at or near the water’s surface among many of Florida’s shallow waterbodies. This creates problems for water level control, and recreational uses including access and navigation of Florida’s lakes. Although there is a significant list of negative results of these infestations, there are definite positives as well. Hydrilla provides habitat for many sport fishes in Florida, especially the highly sought-after largemouth bass. Hydrilla also provides an ample food source for many migratory waterfowl species as well as a natural filtering component for nutrient rich waterbodies.
As these infestations have drastically altered areas of Florida, the issues have become extremely polarizing. In recent years, hydrilla has expanded in Lake Harris. In 2017 and 2018, it was estimated that 30% of the lake was covered in submersed plants, of which roughly 70% was hydrilla. Most stakeholder input received by FWC on hydrilla management was through stakeholder meetings or on various social media outlets. To make more informed decisions on hydrilla management, FWC needed a tool to better assess the varying levels of use on waterbodies, as well as the full spectrum of opinions of hydrilla management at these waterbodies. Biologists from FWRI, Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management and Invasive Plant Management worked together to develop this tool at Lake Harris.
Biologists were able to quantify the proportions of different users at Lake Harris by implementing a moving boat count into the annual creel survey. During the surveys, all moving boats were counted, therefore it could be inferred the proportion of boat included and not included in the creel. Boat type activities were then informed by a secondary survey at access points. These access point surveys then revealed the different activity proportions by different boat types and could be applied to all the moving boats seen on the lake. Finally, a 22-question survey was developed to identify the opinions of the various user groups at Lake Harris.
Since November 2018, 2,908 moving boats were identified using Lake Harris. The proportion of activity by each boat type was categorized by interviewing 1,095 boats. Bass boats and pontoons made up 61% of all boats using Lake Harris. The use at Lake Harris was split between angling (45%) and boating (55%). Boaters had a more negative opinion overall of hydrilla than largemouth bass anglers. Black Crappie and Sunfish anglers tended to be more similar to boaters, as their fishing techniques were negatively impacted by dense hydrilla. A high majority (94%) of all users wanted to see native vegetation expand in the absence of hydrilla. When asked about the use of herbicide as a control method, 35% of users voiced some concern. If FWC was to discontinue their treatment, 86% of users thought that hydrilla would expand greatly or cover the entire lake. Overall, users at Lake Harris had somewhat positive opinions (3.48) when asked if they were satisfied with FWC’s management of hydrilla (Likert scale 1-5; Extremely Negative to Extremely Positive).
This survey provided a framework for future research to
quantify different user groups at different waterbodies to inform FWC when
making aquatic management decisions. The survey also provided a representative,
proactive approach to better understanding the user dynamics at Lake Harris and
how they relate to the management of hydrilla. FWC can use the results of this
study to target specific groups based on the current contact list when deciding
on future management actions. This study at Lake Harris concluded that although
biologists may hear from a vocal group of users that are displeased with
management, overall users are more satisfied than originally thought.
FWRI has a brand-new research center! The Center for Conservation Social Science Research (CCSSR) focuses on the complex relationships between people and the fish, wildlife and habitat resources FWC conserves and protects. The CCSSR, much like FWRI’s Center for Biostatistics and Modelling and the Center for Spatial analysis, has a two-fold mission of providing consulting services and supporting broader FWC programs. The center, led by Nia Morales, is comprised of human dimensions specialists Ramesh Paudyal and Matty Cleary, and economist Julian Hwang. The CCSSR does not have a physical location that citizens can visit, rather a group of like-minded individuals working towards a shared goal. We also work with Ann Forstchen and Seth Lutter for additional support and expertise. The core group of social scientists provides consulting services for FWC programs- this includes advisement and consultation for biologists and other FWC staff on the development and implementation of social science inquiry. Staff affiliated with the center support the development and integration of social science within broader FWC programs. CCSSR staff also conduct trainings for FWC staff on qualitative and quantitative social science methods, science communication, and stakeholder outreach and education.
This new center is born of the increased need for the
agency to understand and incorporate public attitudes and opinions into natural
resource decision-making. Humans are at the heart of most of our most pressing
conservation issues and understanding how people interact with fish, wildlife,
and their habitats as well as their opinions and attitudes towards management
are important. Human dimensions and conservation social science use scientific
methods to describe, understand, predict, and affect human attitudes and
behaviors toward the natural environment. The field incorporates methods,
theories, and techniques from a broad array of social sciences like economics,
sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science and education.
Some projects that our staff are currently involved in
include providing support to strategic initiative teams, assessing the economic
impacts of bass tournament fishing in Florida, measuring caller satisfaction
with the conflict wildlife hotline, understanding private landowner opinions
about FWC, and developing a management plan for black crappie. As FWC continues
to increase capacity for conservation social science, we can be better suited
to addressing conservation challenges now and in the future.
In the early 1960s, Robert F. Hutton (1921-1994) and
Franklin Sogandares-Bernal (1931-2016) published a series of papers on
parasites from a wide variety of animals collected around Florida. From 1955 to
1962, Dr. Hutton was the head biologist and parasitologist for FWRI (then
called the Florida State Board of Conservation Marine Laboratory) and from
1957-1958 Dr. Sogandares-Bernal worked with him as a marine parasitologist.
The host animals include various species of worms, oysters, birds,
fish, crabs, shrimp, and mammals, while their parasites included nematodes,
flatworms, arthropods, and even some non-animal groups like fungi and
single-celled eukaryotes. While the disposition of the host animals is unknown,
roughly 1100 prepared microscope slides of the parasites survived, having been
in storage in the Florida Biodiversity Collections here at FWRI. Until now,
these slides have been uncataloged, unsearchable, and completely invisible to
the research community.
With the help of volunteer Brooke Longval, who has spent
hours examining the available data, correcting obvious errors, and formatting
them for ingestion into the database, we have selected 667 slides with the
highest quality data to be cataloged, labeled, and digitized. We prioritized
specimens where the host species was recorded, the parasite was identified, and
collecting locality information was preserved. Many of the remaining uncataloged
slides are only missing one of these components and thus still have strong
potential as research or reference material.
The next steps are in-progress and they include using archival glues and papers to attach new labels to the slides, photograph the slides to preserve original hand-written label data (which are deteriorating over time due to suboptimal materials), and to select representatives of the specimens themselves to be captured in photomicrographs that will be available online and associated with specimen records in the database. All newly assigned catalog numbers all start with the collection code FSBC, which identifies the collection to which they belong, and hearkens back to the earlier days of the agency when It was called the Florida State Board of Conservation.
With so many parasites identified to genus and species by an
expert in the field (Dr. Hutton has described many new species of parasite)
these slides are a valuable reference source and a tool for investigating novel
The host-parasite relationship is illustrative
of the fact that specimens are much more than simply a time-and-place record
for one species. Specimens contain a trove of ecological and environmental data
that can be accessed for as long as the specimen exists, including the parasite
load at the time of collection. Sometimes the parasites are obvious, as in the
case of Bopyrid isopods under a crab carapace, but in the case of an
Apicomplexan from the gut of a pink shrimp, one must dig a little deeper to
Fish Communities Associated with Hard Bottom Habitats in Tampa Bay; What Lives in These Recently Mapped Areas?
By Kerry Flaherty-Walia et al
Hard bottom habitats such as corals, sponges, limestone ledges and artificial reefs are known to support diverse fish communities in offshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Less is known about inshore hard bottom habitats in Tampa Bay. Our study, funded by the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund (TBERF), was designed to answer research questions about (1) the distribution of hard bottom habitats in Tampa Bay, (2) the fish species that are using these habitats, (3) the temporal and spatial use of these habitats by fish and finally (4) how fish use these hard bottom habitats in comparison to other habitats within Tampa Bay.
Using baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveys and timed-drop hook-and-line sampling, data were collected on species composition and abundance for natural and artificial hard bottom habitats within Tampa Bay. Species that have not been or are rarely collected in fisheries-independent monitoring efforts within Tampa Bay have been documented. Information on hard bottom habitat use was collected for a variety of economically important species, including reef fish that are not typically considered estuarine dependent (i.e., red grouper). These results suggest that Tampa Bay hard bottom habitats function as an extension of nearshore coastal hard bottom, attracting species not normally seen within the estuary. In addition, these habitats probably serve as a nursery for emigrating estuarine-dependent reef fish as they move to shallow nearshore reefs farther offshore (e.g., gag, gray snapper). Hooked gear sampling yielded accurate lengths on many of these key estuarine dependent reef fish species and provided data on species that are commonly captured by the recreational fishery.
The grant-funded portion of this study was scheduled to end in 2018, but in response to the severe red tide bloom that occurred during the study period, an additional year of sampling will be conducted to observe any potential changes in these estuarine hard bottom fish assemblages. This ongoing research will help resource managers prioritize habitat conservation and artificial reef enhancement throughout Tampa Bay and surrounding waters and could easily be a model for other estuarine systems along the Florida coast. For more information email Kerry.Flaherty-Walia@MyFWC.com.
The red tide blooms in Florida this year have gained not only a full response from local and state resources, but a national spotlight from news media across the country. As of this writing, there are three separate blooms affecting the Panhandle, Southwest Florida, and the Atlantic Coast. Over 10,000 water samples later, FWRI and FWC continues to respond to one of the most severe and widespread blooms of Karenia brevis in recent years.
FWRI’s new red tide map updates daily, automatically populating the interactive map with red tide data from the last 8 days of sampling. Our new map has been well received by the public and provides valuable data on a more immediate basis than our previous twice-weekly reports. This change illustrates FWRI’s commitment to providing the public with accurate, scientifically-verified data, and responding to public comment and criticism.
FWRI’s Marine Mammal Stranding unit continues to be a crucial component for manatee rescue during these severe red tide blooms. Once a citizen calls in a stranded or distressed manatee to the Wildlife Alert Hotline, Marine Mammal Stranding responds to the incident and, depending on the location in the state, the manatee is then transferred to rehabilitation facilities. Manatees have had heavy losses related to red tide this year – at last count 182 manatees – but the number would be higher if not for the diligent efforts of the Marine Mammal Stranding team.
The Fish Kill Hotline continues to be a successful program, with concerned citizens reporting over 1,300 individual fish kills in Southwest Florida alone. Floridians across the state have assisted FWC in the monitoring – and in many cases assisting fish kill clean-up – of the red tide blooms with the Red Tide Offshore Monitoring Program.
Red tide response from FWRI extends to many levels of the organization, including Communications. In addition to answering inquiries from the public and press, Communications creates products such as infographics, press releases, newsletters, videos and more.
In addition to water sampling, FWC conducted flyovers with Law Enforcement aircraft Panther 1 in 5, 7 and 10 mile surveys along Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties on September 9th, 2018. These observations provided visual confirmation of blooms and provided researchers with visual data on fish kills, manatee mortalities and more. Observations from the 10 mile survey estimated that the bloom extended at least 15 miles offshore in some areas.
Data is also gleaned from the Copernicus satellite program, which observes chlorophyll concentrations in surface waters. Satellite observations are not infallible, however, as cloud cover obscures observation capabilities.
Combining satellite and aircraft observations with extensive water-sampling data can begin to paint an accurate picture of the dynamic red tide blooms. Moore’s law shows us that technology is constantly improving, and so we hope to see increased precision in monitoring capabilities as time progresses. FWC hope to continue to embrace current and emerging technology to help better track, monitor and mitigate red tide blooms in Florida.
FWRI Biologists Work to Restore Flatwoods Salamander Populations in Apalachicola National Forest
Subsisting primarily on a diet of earthworms and spiders, the silvery-gray reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi) and the frosted flatwoods salamander (A. cingulatum) inhabit the pine flatwoods-wiregrass ecosystems of the panhandle of our state. Both species of salamanders are long and slender, with a maximum length of about 5.2 inches (13 centimeters).
The frosted flatwoods salamander and the reticulated flatwoods salamander depend on isolated herbaceous ephemeral ponds situated within longleaf pine savannas and mesic flatwoods to complete their life cycles. Adults migrate from their upland retreats to breeding sites on rainy nights from October through December. Long thought to be a single species, the flatwoods salamander was listed as federally threatened in 1999. Subsequent genetic analyses revealed that the flatwoods salamander was actually two evolutionary separate but ecologically similar lineages. In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service amended its listing of the flatwoods salamander, listing frosted flatwoods salamander as a Threatened species, and the reticulated flatwoods salamander as an Endangered species. Most known populations of flatwoods salamanders have been lost to the destruction of the longleaf pine ecosystem, which has largely been converted to development, commercial pine plantations, or agricultural uses. Populations that remain on public conservation lands continue to decline and disappear. Flatwoods salamander breeding habitats were historically maintained by early summer lightning-ignited wildfires that burned through shallow wetlands when they were dry. Modern prescribed fire practices favor burning under unnaturally cool and wet conditions of winter and spring, causing fire to be excluded from inundated wetlands. The result is that most breeding sites have become thickly encroached with woody trees and shrubs, eliminating the plant communities that the salamanders require for nesting and larval survival.
Our Uplands Habitat biologists are currently in the Apalachicola National Forest sampling plants in ephemeral ponds that have undergone restoration to make them suitable for flatwoods salamander breeding. FWRI researchers are working to quantify vegetation characteristics—such as plant species composition, abundance, and distribution—that have been qualitatively described for flatwoods salamander nesting habitat. For example, pipeworts (Eriocaulon spp.) and switchgrasses (Dichanthelium spp.) are important plants sought out by the flatwoods salamander because females lay eggs on the moist soil beneath their leaves.
Over the last two winters, FWC biologists in the Reptile and Amphibian Research lab have worked long hours headstarting larval frosted flatwoods salamanders in the Apalachicola National Forest. The aim of headstarting is to boost salamander numbers in critical populations until their breeding ponds can be restored to suitability. Staff scientists collect eggs from dry breeding ponds in December and bring them in to the lab. Once the embryos develop sufficiently, the eggs are hatched into large water-filled “cattle tank” mesocosms. Because mesocosms are food-rich and predator-free environments, larval survival rates can be much higher than in the wild. In April and May, larval salamanders are captured from the mesocosms as they lose their gills and transform to air-breathing metamorphs. They are marked with coded color tags or microchips, and released them back into their ponds of origin. Breeding ponds are monitored to determine if headstarted salamanders successfully return to breed in subsequent years.
View our Flickr album documenting the efforts to boost the population of this rapidly declining salamander species.
Warm congratulations to FWRI biologist, Pierson Hill, for receiving the Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) 2018 Conservation Hero Award! This award is given in recognition for making significant contributions to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in the southeast region, and successfully achieving on-the-ground conservation for herpetofauna by preventing loss of species or their habitats. Pierson is working on several projects focused on recovering populations of the critically imperiled frosted flatwoods salamander.
Over the past two winters, Pierson has led a team that collected and hatched salamander eggs that would have otherwise perished due to unusually dry conditions. The team has rescued over 2000 eggs, donated more than 400 for captive breeding efforts, and released 1300 metamorph salamanders back into the wild. His efforts have provided a critical boost to rapidly declining populations and made headway in the methodology of headstarting this beautiful and fragile species.
The internal newsletter of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute