Amphibians on the edge of extinction

Ecologist seeks revival of salamander colony at Eastern Shore pond

July 26, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Charlie Stine splashes through Massey Pond, jabbing his long-handled net into the water like a very impatient crabber. He's wearing waders, and he's up to his hips in water trying to catch predatory fish he thinks prey on his beloved tiger salamanders.

A respected ecologist who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University, Stine first found tiger salamanders at this pond in Kent County nearly 50 years ago. He's returned many, many times every year since trying to pry out the secrets of this very elusive creature.

Now nearing 80 years old, he's worried that the tiger salamander, already an endangered species in Maryland and many other states, may be severely threatened at Massey Pond by a changing environment and "benign neglect" by the Natural Heritage Program of the state Department of Natural Resources.

"It's their responsibility to manage ... these different facilities where there are endangered species to see they're kept in such an ecological manner to be conducive to that species staying there," he says. "It's pretty forthright. Well, they haven't done it."

He's organized a conference of ecologists and other scientists for an Oct. 22 conference at Hopkins to discuss forming a civilian oversight committee to monitor the management of endangered species, from wildflowers to beetles to, well, the tiger salamander.

"You could look around here," he says, at the pond. "Fifty years ago, half a century, this was so different. This species needs an open canopy. Trees began to enclose. The pH [the acid-alkaline ratio] changes. The oxygen level goes down. A couple years running now, we've seen no eggs, no larvae, no adults."

Glenn Therres, head of DNR's heritage program, defends the management of Massey Pond. He and Stine are friendly, and his program has relied on Stine's surveys of the pond for the past few years. Therres says they are considering many of Stine's suggestions, but he thinks Stine may be unduly pessimistic about the future of the salamanders at the pond.

That's a tricky proposition. The tiger salamander is a reclusive creature that spends 10 months of the year in underground burrows. Therres has seen salamanders only once, and it was while at the pond with Stine.

They pop out of their burrows only at the end of winter to mate after a "nuptial dance" that consists mostly of suggestive nuzzling. An amphibian splotched with yellow-gold spots on dark skin, the tiger salamander has a big, blunt head with a wide smirk and bulging, gold-colored eyes. Usually 6 inches to 8 inches long, with a sagging belly and four stout legs, they can grow as long as 13 inches. And they can live 20 years or so.

Tiger salamanders first appeared at Massey Pond in the early 1950s after a road construction crew dug out gravel to pave Route 330, then a dirt road. They left a pit that became a vernal pond, a temporary pool created by spring rains and melting snow that provides an excellent breeding environment for salamanders because there are no predatory fish.

But Massey Pond is becoming less desirable for the salamanders.

"When I first found them, there were as many as 200 [salamanders] in there," Stine says. For years, Massey Pond harbored the biggest colony in Maryland.

There are none now, he says.

"We don't know how many are out there away from the pond. They're going to die, right, of natural causes. They're going to get old and die."

The human activity that created the pond 50 years ago left a berm open to flooding from a branch of the Chester River that brings fish with it.

"They're predators," Stine says. "Where you got fish, you don't have amphibians."

He stomps back to shore with a single green frog tadpole in his net.

"This is the first time I haven't found fish," he says. He's found eight or nine fairly large blue gills on earlier trips.

From where he stands near the road, only a small pool of open water can be seen. Trees line the banks. A blue heron glides softly overhead. Dragon- flies whirr among the grasses, reeds and small shrubs encroaching on the pond.

"Later on in the season, you'll see a lot of algae growing over here, which sucks up the oxygen so that the [salamander] larvae don't survive," he says.

Therres says his department is considering putting a plug in the berm. And he agrees the vegetation in the pond is "problematic."

"I've asked my restoration ecologist, a botanist, to get recommendations on how we may be able to control that," he says.

David Lee, a colleague of Stine's who has been curator of birds at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, suggests, not necessarily facetiously, that "you could make a pond just like [Massey] a hundred yards away and start over, instead of trying to fix that one."

Lee, who grew up in Towson and taught at Towson High School, discovered the Massey Pond salamander population along with Stine and another friend. He's written several scholarly papers on the life of the salamanders in the pond

"At that time, tiger salamanders in and around the pond were extremely common," he says. "I don't disagree with any of Charlie's thoughts on [the ecology of the pond]."

Stine hopes the Massey Pond salamander colony is not lost forever.

"But will they come back?" he asks. "My guess is there won't be many eggs in the beginning. We have to build the population up again. I'm hopeful."

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