April 5, 2013
About five years ago, what are known as Jefferson salamanders returned to the pond where they laid eggs each spring. But their breeding site—the pond, was gone, filled in with dirt and rocks. So when it came time for the creatures to lay their eggs, they migrated to what must have looked to them like a nice, new wet place. Unfortunately, what they found themselves in was a sewage plant.
“See how it’s churning now? Those poor salamanders were in there—dying," says April Claus, director of environmental education at the Fern Hollow Nature Center outside Pittsburgh, while standing near the Bell Acres Borough sewage plant. This is the spot from which sewage workers called Claus in 2007 when they saw the salamanders. (See the 7-minute film that portrays this story--it's made by Quaker Valley High School students who worked with Claus, who call themselves the "Quaker Valley Creekers.")
“They told me that there was a bad situation at the local sewage plant, that they found a number of salamanders. They weren’t sure what kind of salamanders they were and they described them to me," she says. "They also described some frogs and based on their descriptions, I knew immediately they were probably Jefferson salamanders."
Jefferson salamanders live in the Northeast, but they were first identified right here in our region in the 1800s—and named after Jefferson College, known today as Washington & Jefferson College.
Claus says the creatures play an important role in the ecosystem. For one thing, they eat up pesky mosquitoes.
But despite the Jeffersons' presidential name and the fact that they’ve been around for a long time, they’re not doing too hot in the environment. Jefferson salamanders have been termed a "species of special concern" by a state panel of experts.
"We have a wide range of things that are infecting amphibians globally, such as the chytrid fungus," Claus says. "We are dealing with habitat fragmentation, which is a huge problem. And we’re humans, and we are basically building constantly ... and when you are developing woodlands and you are developing green space, you are going to fragment habitat that belongs to these critters."
So when the sewage workers called, Claus was worried about yet another space for the salamanders disappearing. Claus says that the sewage workers offered to scoop up the salamanders and show them to her. They arrived with what Claus described as "buckets and buckets of the critters," up to 150 of the species.
The salamanders could not go back to the sewage plant, but they also couldn’t return to the non-existent pond. So Claus took action.
"I made a call to some of my colleagues at the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association and I told them what was happening. And I called some of my friends at the University of Pittsburgh, who I know do amphibian work. I said, 'I’m going to have to come up with a quick solution for this.’ And one of the things that came up was cattle tanks, burying cattle tanks into the ground and using those as a temporary breeding pool."
These cattle tanks are something like plastic baby pools you might put in the backyard—three foot deep and five feet across. That solved one problem. But Claus was concerned about the salamanders going back to the sewage plant.
"We started out with silk fencing and that didn’t work. So we had to go with something more serious which is about a 20-inch-high aluminum fence. So the watershed association bought the materials and then I made calls to friends and volunteers of Fern Hollow and the watershed association to come up and help dig the trench around the sewage tanks," she says.
The effort seems to be working. Salamanders are now breeding at the new site.
"In the first year I only had less than 50. Last year we had 148, and this year so far we've got 99 Jeffs," Clause says.
"The thing that’s tricky about this particular animal is that not all the population comes to the breeding ponds every year. Males tend to come more often than females, and you have to be of a certain age to come. It’s like a singles bar. You have to wait for them to become sexually mature. These animals can live 20 years. So you have to reach that before you start coming to the pond to breed," she says.
Despite the fact that they can live 20 years, most of us won’t catch a glimpse of Jefferson salamanders because they’re what’s called fossorial—they live deep under the leaf litter. They're also nocturnal—they travel around at night.
"They’re like a darkish color on top—almost like a light black, blueish color—but they have these gorgeous blue flecks on the side of their bodies. They are just really, incredibly beautiful. And they can get up to like six or seven inches, I’ve seen them. The males are skinny and long and slender. And the females tend to be fat during this time of the year," Claus says.
Some people might think they make great pets, and they might help create a safe space for the salamanders around their own home, but it’s actually illegal to handle the creatures without a license, which Claus has.
“You can’t collect them as pets. You know, it’s illegal. And you get fined for that,“ she says.
At the site of the habitat she created, Claus explains that in addition to leading the charge to save the salamander habitat, she’s also working with Robert Morris University to weigh and study the salamanders, and that students who come to the nature center have learned about the efforts. They will likely see their own youthful wonder reflected in Claus—who lights up when she sees the Jefferson salamanders gelatinous egg masses outdoors.
"I’m hopeful that what we’re doing is bringing the species back," she says. "But more importantly, in addition to saving this population, we’re having kids watch us save that population and showing them that simple actions of being observant and vigilant can actually have a real effect on a species like this."
High school students from the Quaker Valley Creekers are making a documentary about the salamander story, which will be completed this month.