The salamander’s range once extended across Alabama, Gerogia and Florida, but ongoing development dramatically shrank the amphibian’s habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the reticulated flatwoods salamander an endangered species in 2009.
EGLIN AFB — Which came first — the reticulated flatwoods salamander, or the egg?
In the case of the endangered amphibian, the answer is easy. It was the egg — or, rather, the eggs.
And they came, of all places, from Eglin Air Force Base.
The installation’s Natural Resources Management office, also known as the Jackson Guard, harvested the eggs under the watchful eye of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of a successful effort by the San Antonio Zoo Center for Conservation and Research to breed the reticulated salamander in captivity.
That achievement could pull the reticulated flatwoods salamander — currently found almost exclusively on the Eglin AFB reservation, which hosts the only breeding population — back from the edge of extinction, according to Danté Fenolio, the zoo’s vice president of conservation and research.
"This gives us hope for a critically endangered species that is in such a dire position," said Fenolio in announcing the milestone earlier this month.
For the future, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans call for the reticulated flatwoods salamander — "reticulated" refers to the salamander’s interlaced markings — to be reintroduced into the wild at a donor site in southwestern Georgia.
The zoo’s center, under the guidance of the USFWS, is continuing to work with Eglin AFB, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Virginia Tech on that reintroduction.
Work done on Eglin AFB to optimize the salamander’s habitat will be critical in reestablishing the amphibian in favorable conditions, Fenolio said.
The Jackson Guard staff, Fenolio said, have been "wonderful conservation partners" in the work with the endangered amphibian.
"They have been front and center and very worried about these salamanders," said Fenolio. "They’ve been wonderful."
The salamander’s range once extended across Alabama, Gerogia and Florida, but ongoing development dramatically shrank the amphibian’s habitat. The USFWS declared the reticulated flatwoods salamander an endangered species in 2009.
The active management of natural resources across the Eglin AFB range is a major reason that the salamander remains viable there, according to Rodney Felix, an endangered species biologist with the Jackson Guard.
Acquiring that knowledge hasn’t been particularly easy, though, given the relatively hidden nature of the reticulated salamander’s life. The amphibian spends most of its life underground, in wetland areas near larger bodies of water, emerging only during breeding season.
"The natural history of this animal is one that lends it to being what we call a ’cryptic species,’ a species that’s just not visible very easily during any of its life cycle," Felix said.
Still, as a result of the Jackson Guard’s work with the reticulated salamander, it wasn’t particularly difficult to harvest the eggs for the San Antonio Zoo project. Jackson Guard workers already knew, for instance, that the salamanders breed in the early fall. They also knew that the females deposit their eggs in "ephemeral wetlands," temporary wetlands created by the rain that typically comes to the area in September and October.
"The gravid (pregnant) females will find what we call a ’microhabitat’ that’s just some components of the habitat at large that are on a much smaller scale," Felix said. Vegetation helps shield the eggs from predators, and the collected wetland moisture protects them from any ongoing lack of rainfall, Felix explained.
So, when the San Antonio Zoo came looking for reticulated salamander eggs, the Jackson Guard was ready. "Under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversight, we were able to provide genetic material to the San Antonio Zoo — and by that, I mean viable eggs that were collected from the wild."
Like the scientist he is, Felix didn’t get too philosophical about the Jackson Guard’s role in helping the San Antonio Zoo bring the reticulated salamander back from the brink of extinction.
"I’m not the most emotional person when it comes to this," he said. "It’s hard to call it excitement -- I would characterize it as satisfaction."
On a practical level, Felix said, the recovery of the reticulated salamander is a "win-win" for the amphibian and for the base. If the reticulated salamander does, in fact, come off of the endangered species list as a result of the work done to reestablish it in the wild, the species won’t have to be so actively managed at Eglin AFB. And that, in turn, can increase opportunities for military training across the installation, Felix explained.
"Anything like this, that’s one step in the recovery of the species, is similarly one step toward mission support here at Eglin ...," Felix said.
In the meantime, though, management efforts related to the reticulated salamander will continue on the Eglin range.
"We’ve been doing habitat restoration in the ephemeral wetlands for years now, and seeing some benefit to that," Felix said. "We’ve been able to find completely new breeding populations, based on identifying eggs or larvae in a wetland that we’d previously never detected."
And so, even as the San Antonio Zoo’s work represents a milestone in ensuring the future of the reticulated flatwoods salamander, the Jackson Guard is, in its own way, also working to ensure that future.
"It’s a heuristic (hands-on) process," said Felix. "We’re learning about things on a yearly basis, about ways to adapt and better manage."
With assistance from Eglin Air Force Base, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Virginia Tech, the San Antonio Zoo’s Center for cosnervation and Research recently announced the successful in-captivity breeding of the reticulated flatwoods salamander, an endangered amphibian species whose only breeding population is located on the Eglin reservation. [COURTESY PHOTO/DANTE FENOLIO]