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Monday, August 25, 2014

A New Approach to Flatwoods Salamander Conservation

Our Amphibian Conservation Program was invited to participate in a week long workshop to address the continued decline of flatwoods salamanders (Ambystoma cingulatum and Ambystoma bishopi) in the south east US. Flatwoods salamander populations have reduced by 50%/decade for the last 50 years or so, with a drastic drop (90%) since 2000.

The Flatwoods Salamander recovery team (L-R): Connor McGowan, Ray Semlitsch, Danté Fenolio, Arianne Messerman, Susan Walls (Group Leader), Tom Gorman, Allison Keever, Nathan Allan, Harold Mitchell, Adam Green and me.
The workshop was offered by USFWS and USGS using Structured Decision Making as the framework to move forward on the complicated task of conserving flatwoods salamanders. 'Structured Decision Making' can be a powerful tool and is defined as: the formal application of common sense for situations too complex for the informal use of common sense (R. Keeney). The first days were spent thoroughly describing the problem we are hoping to address and the main objectives which would remedy the problem. The overall Structured Decision Making framework is pictured below:

Before the workshop, when I was still naive to Structured Decision Making, I may have described the process as boring, redundant and belaboring. Now I am convinced that it is our best shot at a directed conservation program, with several components, people, and agencies working towards a common goal: Ensuring that both species of flatwoods salamanders continue to persist in the wild, and have places to thrive in nature
The workshop involved many hours in our group discussing the problem, objectives and alternatives, as well as the consequences and trade-offs of proposed actions. The process necessitated consideration of all feasible alternatives and outcomes, all the while considering the likelihood that flatwoods salamanders could be extinct within 2-3 years.

The Structured Decision Making workshop was hosted by Mississippi State and was held at the High Performance Computer Collaboratory there.
Our goal this year is to find and collect 50 Ambystoma cingulatum larvae (Danté Fenolio, formerly of the Garden and currently at San Antonio Zoo will be collecting 50 Ambystoma bishopi larvae) We will ideally continue yearly until we have enough breeding adults to produce enough larvae in captivity to be released into suitable wild habitat. This is a quirky species however and has never been bred in captivity. We have been successful in breeding difficult species in the past, and are hopefully to produce lots of baby Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders in the future.

Susan Walls, Danté Fenolio and Ray Semlitsch hanging recent and current range maps for both species of flatwoods salamanders.
Allison Keever, Adam Green and Nathan Allen were our SDM coaches and they kept us focussed on our goals and objectives. They also provided invaluable analytical skill and modeling prowess which was used to predict the outcomes of alternative actions.
An unexpected highlight was meeting Ronn Altig (R), the pioneer of tadpole biology
In between salamander group sessions, we presented our thoughts and proposed action to other groups attending the Structured Decision Making workshop.
One of the other groups was aimed at the conservation of the Louisiana Pine Snake (Pituophis ruthveni) and here Steve Reichling, of the Memphis Zoo is displaying one to the group. Louisiana Pine Snakes are on of the rarest serpents on the continent.
Harold Mitchell, of USFWS holding the Louisiana Pine Snake

Susan Walls delivered our final presentation which contained our most recent plan of action to conserve flatwoods salamanders.
We will continue updating the blog as the project develops!