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Marbled salamander

Marbled Salamanders


Returning Marbled Salamanders to a Former Home in Massachusetts

Working together with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Medford High School, and the Friends of the Fells, we've begun to reintroduce marbled salamanders to one of their most important former homes in northeastern Massachusetts, the Middlesex Fells. In 2016, we released our first group of young marbled salamanders in the Fells, possibly the first members of their species to occupy this area in 80 years.

Marbledsalamanderrelease1 BoxFor the length of this program, each year, under the guidance of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, we safely remove newly-hatched marbled salamander larvae from winter-cold vernal pools in western Massachusetts, raise the aquatic larvae through their transformation into air-breathing juvenile salamanders, and release them near suitable vernal pools in the Middlesex Fells. We collaborate with local area schools to raise the salamanders. Unlike Blanding’s turtles, however, our headstarted marbled salamanders are far too small to be radio-tracked and there isn't suitable technology to track them as they seek out suitable forest habitat and hopefully mature into adults in two- to five-years time. Beginning in 2018, we plan to recruit adult and high school volunteers to help us search for marbled salamanders and other amphibians in the Fells.

Additionally, in partnership with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and others, we'll continue to gather baseline data on marbled salamanders—the one remaining healthy population of marbled salamanders in northeastern Massachusetts—in the Blue Hills. We hope to map out breeding sites used by the salamanders in the Fells, document whether cohorts of larvae survive to metamorphosis, and look for changes in the population over time.

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About the Marbled Salamander

The marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) is a beautiful, relatively large salamander ranging from Florida to southern New Hampshire. Uniquely among the 12 salamander species native to New England, marbled salamanders lay their eggs in the late summer or autumn months and their young often hatch at the onset of our harsh winters. As larvae, marbled salamanders grow actively under the ice of frozen vernal pools, metamorphosing into strikingly silver patterned juveniles in the spring and early summer, before heading into dry, often rocky woodlands to complete their growth to adulthood.

Marbledsalamander BoxAt the northern edge of their range, marbled salamanders are listed as Threatened species in Massachusetts and as a critically imperiled Endangered species in New Hampshire. In Massachusetts, marbled salamanders have essentially disappeared from Essex and Middlesex Counties, where a number of local populations were observed into the late 20th century. The only substantial population known to remain in northeastern Massachusetts breeds in a number of vernal pools in the Blue Hills, south of Boston. Relatively little is known, however, about the distribution, habits and breeding sites of the Blue Hills marbled salamander population.

Middlesex Fells, a very large tract of rocky forest and wetlands located only five miles from Boston, is one of the former homes of marbled salamanders in northeastern Massachusetts. Marbled salamanders were observed and collected in the Fells in 1932, near the peak of forest loss and alteration in the area. They haven't been seen in the Fells or in surrounding communities since that time. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the forest and natural undergrowth in the Middlesex Fells has recovered and biologists have documented more than 100 vernal pools in the area, many of which might provide excellent breeding habitat for the marbled salamander. On their own, however, marbled salamanders, now largely extirpated from northeastern Massachusetts have no chance of crossing the highways that ring the Fells and repopulating the area.

Marbled Salamander Fact Sheet

The Threat

Like the closely related but more common spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), marbled salamanders depend upon complex natural landscapes, where individuals, over the course of their lives, can have access to both healthy forests and a range of vernal pools with different annual periods of flooding. Near the northern edge of their range, local populations of marbled salamanders are often rare to start with and these populations will dwindle or disappear as either the critical forest or wetland components are lost or degraded. Roads and cleared areas, moreover, can form barriers to salamander movement, effectively cutting individuals off from access to critical breeding or adult habitat.

Marbledsalamander Box (1)Historically, many vernal pool breeding sites used by marbled salamanders were filled or drained. Woodlands, where the salamanders live for most of their lives, have been cut down, logged heavily, and have had their critical undergrowth altered by invasive plant species and even by introduced earthworms. Remaining vernal pools in New England may be polluted with road salt and pesticides, all of which can kill or damage salamander eggs and larvae.

Additionally, a major infectious disease of salamanders, the skin fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrovirans, appears to have been widely spread by people, possibly through the pet trade in salamanders native to Asia where the fungus may have originated. Though currently unknown in North America, this devastating disease could easily be introduced here without careful management of the international trade in frogs and salamanders. Finally, climate change may worsen an already difficult situation, especially if recent trends towards longer periods of dry weather in late autumn become the norm. Though warmer temperatures in October through December could be a boon to developing marbled salamander embryos, these gains can be easily offset by prolonged late autumn droughts, which may result in total hatching failure.

Help us Conserve Marbled Salamanders: In the classroom and the field

Marbledsalamanderrelease BoxWe raise only a relatively small number of marbled salamanders each year, and the care of these amphibians requires a fair bit of training. Currently, we are limiting school participation to middle or high schools in the immediate vicinity of the Middlesex Fells.

In 2018, we hope to begin regular surveys for salamander and frogs in the Middlesex Fells.

If you're interested in this program, please contact us.

Additionally, if you have time available during the week, are physically able to wade through rocky and mucky wetlands, and are willing to be trained in an environmentally responsible survey protocol, you may be able to help us survey for marbled salamanders in the Blue Hills during the spring (April and May) and again in September.