Salamanders get a helping hand

PETER HAIGH gets his four grandchildren to check salamander boards on his property monthly as part of a monitoring program. From left with one of the boards, are Aurora Peden, Josiah Peden, Jasmine Peden and Shyla Peden. - MARGARET SPEIRS
PETER HAIGH gets his four grandchildren to check salamander boards on his property monthly as part of a monitoring program. From left with one of the boards, are Aurora Peden, Josiah Peden, Jasmine Peden and Shyla Peden.
— image credit: MARGARET SPEIRS

LOCALS ARE volunteering to monitor amphibians in the area to determine if they are healthy or being affected by climate change or other dangers.

It started last fall when carpentry foundation students at Northwest Community College volunteered to build 100 salamander boards to be put around the region as a place for salamanders to live and be counted monthly; they ended up building 128 of them.

People have volunteered to put the boards on their property to help the salamanders and some have said they want to protect the habitat so they can flourish as important members of the ecosystem, says Norma Kerby, program coordinator of the Northwest BC Long Term Amphibian/Reptile Volunteer Monitoring Program.

Salamanders help keep the insect population in check by eating insects and their larvae, she says.

“That’s the number one importance of amphibians from our perspective. Without them, insect populations can get into uncontrolled growth,” says Kerby.

Salamanders are a bell wether species of climate change, sort of like a canary in a coal mine, warning us of dangers before they affect us.

They absorb water through their skin and are extremely sensitive to temperature and moisture and if either of those factors change, it affects their habitat, she says.

“If there’s a healthy population in a small pond or lake and then a [nearby] subdivision grows and adds more septic tanks and they die out, it usually means there’s contamination in the water,” she says.

People have come to her asking for salamander boards to put on their property because they want to help out, says Kerby.

Volunteers range in age from children to  retired people, plus a resort and fish hatchery, and she’s pleasantly surprised by how much they want to help.

“It’s really interesting how many people want to make a difference,” she says.

“It’s something straightforward they can do,” says Kerby, adding that the hope is that this is a pilot project and eventually it will be as popular as  birdwatching.

“And plus if you  manage the ecosystem correctly for amphibians, you manage correctly for the whole ecosystem.”

Volunteers check the boards once a month and fill out a form that goes to a fourth year science student at the University of Northern BC campus here, who is compiling the data and looking for patterns in range extensions and whether there’s a time of day or year where there’s more salamanders, explains Kerby.

Salamanders move during certain times of the year from a hibernation pond to where they breed and then to where they eat all summer and then head back to the hibernation pond again, she says.

Normally they move in April to their breeding ponds, but if the climate warms, they would move earlier, she says.

“The trouble is if their eggs hatch too early, their normal food may not be ready yet. Timing is really critical to lay their eggs and the salamanders come out to the right kind of food to eat,” she says.

The best habitats are ones within a square kilometre that amphibians can get to  but that’s getting rarer and rarer, she adds

Another issue is  that children will sometimes see a salamander at a park, pick it up, and want to take it home; however, that’s a bad idea.

“People don’t understand if you gather amphibians in a bucket and leave it in the hot sun, they are real sensitive to heat and it kills them,” she says.

By starting this project now, it will be possible to watch what happens to the amphibian population during the next 10 years, she says.

Ten sets of boards are in the Terrace area, and five are out at Lakelse Lake, says Kerby.

When all of the boards are out, they will be in 44 locations from Telegraph Creek to Fort St. James and out to Prince Rupert.

This week, Kerby is putting in boards in Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek.

Anyone who wants to know more, get involved or just wants to see  amphibians in their habitat is invited to the upcoming Amphibians in the Park at Lakelse Lake Park. For more details on Amphibians in the Park, see the Community Calendar.

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