AMERICAN FORESTS is happy to mark the Year of the Salamander with the continuation of our work restoring forest habitat throughout North America, home to the greatest number of salamander species on earth. In fact, 33 percent of the world’s salamanders are found in North America and despite their small size, their biomass in North American forests is more than any other animal!
In particular, this year, American Forests is partnering again with the Longleaf Alliance to reforest areas of Georgia and Florida with the longleaf pine that supports the endangered reticulated flatwoods salamander.
Flatwoods salamanders are a type of amphibian often known as “mole salamanders” because they spend much of their life burrowed underground. After undergoing their metamorphosis in the ponds and wetlands of the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains, they emerge to live their adult life on — and under — land, returning to the ponds to breed.
The lands that await these newly developed adult salamanders as they climb from the water to firm ground are the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast. But, there isn’t nearly as much of this ecosystem as there used to be. Of the 90 million acres of longleaf pine that once grew there, less than three percent remain today. This loss and fragmentation of habitat has led to the decline of the salamanders as well. There are just 21 known populations remaining of the reticulated flatwoods salamander and 71 percent of these rely on just a single breeding site. First listed as threatened in 1999, the reticulated flatwoods salamander was declared endangered in 2009 when it was determined to be a separate species from the frosted flatwoods salamander.
That’s one of the reasons American Forests and the Longleaf Alliance will be planting 133,200 longleaf pines across 300 acres of the Box-R Wildlife Management Area in Florida. But that’s not all. The flatwoods salamander is just one of nearly 600 species supported by this keystone species, half of which are considered rare. The pines also provide erosion control and provide the benefits of trees to areas where many other trees can’t grow due to sandy soil conditions. They are also more resistant to diseases, insects, fires and storms than many other southeastern pines, making them well-suited to withstand increasing incidents of extreme weather associated with climate change.
The periodic fires required by the longleaf pine ecosystem may also be key to maintaining healthy breeding sites for the flatwoods salamander. The salamanders seem to prefer wetlands with emergent vegetation — plants rooted in the water, but reaching the air — as opposed to those with thick growth. Wildfire may help maintain such ecosystems.
Salamanders might be small, but they are important indicator species in many ecosystems including longleaf pine forests. Their thin skin helps them breathe and drink, but makes them some of the first to succumb to environmental changes. The health of their populations can tell us a lot about the health of the ecosystem as a whole.
For more Global ReLeaf projects, visit www.americanforests.org/global-releaf.