Biologists hunt for non-native amphibians

·4 min read

If you lift up a bit of wood or debris in your yard and come across something resembling an earthworm with four tiny paws, don’t use it as bait.

James and Julia want you to get in touch.

James Baxter Gilbert and Julia Riley are biologists based out of Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, and they’ve been in St. John’s since May 30 trying to track down the elusive eastern red-backed salamander.

Be advised: the little critters are not native to Newfoundland.

“No salamander would be native to the island,” Gilbert said on an unseasonably cold day in early June, as he and Riley were about to explore an area in Conception Bay South off Dunns Hill Road. “There's a couple of species in Labrador and there are species down in Nova Scotia, of course. But the island itself shouldn't have almost any native amphibians.”

What about frogs, you ask?

Well, green frogs came here around the 1850s, likely hitching a ride with some sort of agricultural product.

“American toads came in because some chap took it upon himself to introduce them here. It was a deliberate introduction in the mid to late 1960s. And that’s kind of foolish because it's people tinkering with the natural order,” said Gilbert.

Salamanders are so new to the province, the researchers have no idea if they’ve spread very far. When they arrived on Monday, they couldn’t even be sure the ones they got a tip about last year had even survived.

Should we be concerned?

“They're harmless, and to be entirely honest, they're quite cute,” Gilbert said. “They're not toxic. They're not dangerous to us physically, but you know they are predators. They eat the little bugs, little invertebrates, vertebrates and whatnot down on the forest floor.

“Any time you start adding extra competitors to a food web, you start to change the dynamics. And so we don't know if that's happening.”

When they first arrived in St. John’s, Gilbert and Riley had great weather and decided to hunt around a valley in Conception Bay South, near where resident Lorne King had found a handful of salamanders on his property in 2021.

“When we came out our first day we walked right into the valley and we went to, like, the beautiful green wilderness and we searched all day and it was nice and warm and we're covered in black flies, and we didn't find a single one,” said Gilbert. “Not one.”

As her partner is talking, Riley lifts a piece of discarded signage in the gravel clearing and peeks underneath.

“The eastern red-backed salamander takes shelter under cover objects,” she explains. “Cover objects are typically in their native range. So, logs on the forest floor or rocks on the forest floor. And here, because they could be anywhere, I'm just looking under any lumber or rocks or litter that could potentially stay moist when it's dry out.”

On Day 2, the pair starting knocking on doors in the neighbourhood and checking backyards.

“Everyone that we've spoken to about it has just been so kind out here — ‘Just come on in, go check out the backyard!’” said Gilbert, adding that people are eager to help out. “Everyone's either surprised and and open to help, or they've seen it and they are 100 per cent on board to help. We’ve done a lot of projects like this, but the amount of folks that give kind of big smiles, ‘Come on over check it out,’ it's been really nice.”

So far, they’ve found 19 salamanders, including some juveniles. That means the salamanders don’t seem to be travelling far, but at least seem to be reproducing.

The biologists are co-operating with the province’s wildlife department, and have permission to take samples back for DNA testing.

“We'll be able to take genetic samples and that'll help us piece together where they came from,” Gilbert said. “So, if we look at the genetics across their native range, and we can figure out which ones linked to here, we can begin to tease apart where they came from, physically. And that might give us some insights into how they got here.”

Citizen scientists are their most important tool during the remaining week of their visit. They ask that anyone who has seen an eastern red-backed salamander to get in touch, either directly by email (jriley@mta.ca or jbaxtergilbert@mta.ca), or by calling the provincial wildlife department.

Any exotic species sightings, including salamanders, can be reported by calling 709-637-2025.

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram

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