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Saving Imperiled Amphibians

Santa Cruz Long Toed Salamander
byElkhorn Slough Team
onDecember 31, 2021

Detecting rare salamanders and frogs from pond water samples in coastal Monterey and Santa Cruz counties – a community science collaboration.

Elkhorn Slough, CA, January 2022. Conservation scientists are trying to learn more about highly threatened salamanders and frogs in wetlands around Monterey, Moss Landing, Watsonville, Aptos, and Santa Cruz, and they are asking for help from the community.

Does this sound RADICAL? That happens to be the acronym of a new collaborative initiative underway to support Rare Amphibian Detection In CALifornia.

The RADICAL team is comprised of conservation practitioners and scientists from the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, UC Santa Cruz, Santa Lucia Reserve, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Washington State University. Together they provide expertise in conservation planning, amphibian natural history, and cutting-edge genetic techniques.

In 2021, the team conducted traditional field surveys to detect amphibian larvae in about 70 regional wetlands and compared this information to the results of collecting water samples and detecting tiny amounts of DNA in them shed by the larvae. The two methods yielded very similar findings. It is laborious and time-consuming to conduct traditional field surveys, and some wetland habitats may be too deep or vegetated to accurately assess via this method. Graduate student Mitch Ralson who is conducting the genetic work comments, “it is exciting that simply collecting small bottles of water and analyzing them in the lab can provide the same information as field surveys”.

In 2022, the team hopes to sample over 100 new wetlands just with water samples analyzed for DNA traces. For this, they are asking local communities to help. Landowners with wetlands or ponds on their property are invited to partner in the effort to save imperiled amphibian species, by inviting the team to collect and analyze water samples from their wetlands.

Anyone willing to collaborate in this project by allowing water sample collecting at a home pond can fill out the questionnaire to get in touch with the researchers.

Fill Out the Questionnaire

Presentation on Imperiled Amphibians

Click the map to see larger

Project Information

Team leader Dr. Kerstin Wasson, Research Coordinator of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, says the goal of the three-year project is to try to better understand where three highly threatened species occur, so future conservation strategies can be designed to support them. “Our dream is to learn that Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders are breeding in some parts of this region that we did not know about. We are inviting people who enjoy the same beautiful habitats as these salamanders to help us save this highly imperiled species from extinction.”

Freshwater is a precious resource for all of us in drought-prone California. This is especially true for those species that depend on freshwater habitats. Frogs and salamanders in this area lay their eggs in freshwater wetlands, where the young tadpoles or larvae grow and thrive until they metamorphose and leave. Adults spend their time in the surrounding upland habitats.

The RADICAL project focuses on one very endangered species, the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander. It is only known to breed in about two dozen ponds and only occurs from about Aptos to Castroville. In Monterey County, there are only a few breeding locations known, and none of them are reliable, as they are each threatened by a multitude of factors. However, there are many ponds within the range of the long-toed salamander that have never been sampled. It is highly likely that there are some breeding sites unknown to science on private lands, and that’s where we need our neighbors’ help.

Some landowners may be wary of letting scientists sample their ponds because official records of federally listed species can make it harder to obtain building permits or conduct other activities. USFWS scientist Chad Mitcham says there is no such risk to landowners willing to allow RADICAL researchers to collect water samples on their property for this effort. The RADICAL team is explicitly committed to protecting landowner privacy, not including names or geographic coordinates in analyses, presentations, or papers, or filing any of these records with any government databases. The data will be used for broad-scale conservation planning only.

In the News

FAQ – Information for neighbors interested in collaborating with this amphibian conservation science project

What is the purpose of this project?
This is an effort to help imperiled species by learning more about their distribution, so broad conservation strategies can be designed to support them better.

Why should I participate?
The Santa Cruz long-toed salamander is in great danger of disappearing forever, and you can help prevent that so this unusual, beautiful species is around for future generations. Very little is known about this elusive species that is only found in a very small range, and you can help provide new information for science and conservation.

Who do I get in touch with if I’m interested in participating?
Dr. Kerstin Wasson, (can set up phone call after contacting by email)

What would you need from me?
A description (and ideally photo) of your pond so the team can decide whether it might have amphibian breeding; if yes, an appointment with you so researchers could come by to collect the water sample.

How long will it take?
Two researchers will come at a time you set with them and stay for about 30 minutes to collect the water sample carefully using sterile techniques to avoid contamination with DNA from other places. Only a small amount of water is collected, about half a gallon.

Will I find out the results?
Yes, we will have you fill out your contact information and will email you the findings by the end of 2022. We will also provide you with resources that you can optionally take advantage of to support the health of the species on your property.

How will information from my pond be used?
The research team will use the presence and absence data from water sampling to understand the full range of the three focal amphibian species. They will also use it to recommend the creation of additional wetlands that could serve as stepping stones to connect known sites.

Will my pond location or amphibian data be made public?
No, the team will never share your address or GPS coordinates of the pond with the public or any government databases. In publications or presentations about this work, your pond will be given a code name that cannot be traced to the owner or specific location.

If rare amphibians are in my pond, will this affect any future activities I want to undertake on my property?
No, the agencies that regulate development or activities on your property will have no access to the eDNA data (unless you opt to share it with them). If you have a pond on your property and there is an existing record of a listed pond-breeding amphibian in the government databases in the vicinity, then regulators already assume that your pond is potential habitat for that species unless proven otherwise. Our eDNA work will not change that since we are not sharing the data with government databases so the agencies that would issue you permits will not have access to the information (and they do not recognize eDNA as evidence of presence or absence). Landowners of course do need to continue to comply with existing regulations that protect wetlands.

What if I am interested but still have questions?
No problem! Fill out our questionnaire – you can leave your address blank for now, and if your pond meets the criteria our researchers are interested in, we’ll reach out to you to talk before getting anything started!

Seal laying in salt marsh

Photo by Kiliii Yuyan

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