By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
Spring salamanders are one of the giants of the salamander world, at least in the Northeast. They can grow to more than 8 inches in length, and their diet often consists of other salamanders. But they are also quite rare in southern New England. They weren’t discovered in Rhode Island until the 1980s, and they still have only been found in a few locations in the northwest part of the state.
In Massachusetts, however, the tan or pinkish species with faint black spots was removed from the state’s list of rare species in 2006. Last month the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) launched a two-year survey to reassess the health of the state’s spring salamander populations amid concerns that the changing climate may be negatively impacting the cool streams where they live.
Jacob Kubel, a conservation scientist with MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, said spring salamanders have a long head with a square snout and external gills. He noted that the natural history of spring salamanders is somewhat unusual. After hatching in a stream, they live as larvae for three or four years before metamorphosing into adult salamanders.
“They can’t be in a stream that’s going to completely dry up in the summer, but they also do better in streams that don’t have fish that might eat them,” Kubel said. “That habitat isn’t extremely common, so the species isn’t extremely common.”
Spring salamanders are primarily found in forested streams with seeps of cold groundwater in high-elevation, hilly terrain. They’ve been found at just four sites in Burrillville and Foster, R.I., but populations in Massachusetts have been located from the Berkshires to Worcester County. The spring salamander is listed as a state threatened species in Connecticut.
“The main objective of our survey is to do a quick assessment to make sure nothing has happened to our state population,” Kubel said. “If we can check off a great majority of historic sites and also find sites we didn’t know about previously, that tells us the status hasn’t taken a turn for the worse since delisting.
“The other component is that, as an agency, we need to be cognizant of climate change and its impacts on environmental resources. With spring salamanders being a cool-water, high-elevation species, it might be one of the first to show stress at the population level. They’re like the canary in the coal mine.”
Kubel and a team of volunteers are visiting locations where the salamander has been found in the past to document that the species hasn’t disappeared. Next year they will focus on finding new populations.
He said the results so far have been encouraging. But the work isn’t easy, and the success rate is pretty low.
“I was at a site last week where we didn’t have any historic records but I thought it was likely to be there, and I found quite a few — seven individuals — after turning over about 400 rocks,” he said. “But then I went to another stream nearby that I thought should have them, and I only found one after turning over 500 rocks.”
At the conclusion of the survey in 2020, Kubel will produce a report that makes recommendations about the conservation status of the spring salamander. The data will also be used as a baseline for comparative studies conducted in the future.
In addition to the spring salamander survey, Kubel is also leading efforts to conduct genetic analyses of blue spotted and Jefferson salamanders, two rare species that look similar and are thought to hybridize, to clarify the geographic distribution of each.
No conservation activities have been undertaken in Rhode Island to study or monitor spring salamander populations, but recent land acquisitions have protected some of its habitat, according to Chris Raithel, a retired wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
“There are only a handful of known localities for it, but Rhode Island seems to be at the edge of its range,” he said.
“These guys have very specific habitat requirements, so it could be that the combination of high gradient perennial streams with a low abundance of fish in a heavily forested area isn’t available in Rhode Island,” Kubel said.
The Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan lists spring salamanders as a species of greatest conservation need.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.