Happy Homecoming for National Forest Newts

Jul 3, 2018

After an absence of many years, some very rare amphibians are back in their North Florida homeland this week. That homecoming is the result of much research, leg work and more than a little perspiration.

The Western Striped Newt
Credit jacksonvillezoo.org

Perspiration is something Wildlife Ecologist Rebecca Means is quite familiar with.

“Well right now I’m sweating like crazy!" she laughed.

That’s because Means and her conservation ecologist, and naturalist husband Ryan Means are enduring the heat, humidity and annoying bugs that abound in the heavily wooded area south of Tallahassee. And the story of why they’re there, she explained, began years ago with Ryan’s father, world-famous naturalist and expert on reptiles and amphibians, Dr. Bruce Means.

“Coastal Plains Institute and specifically Bruce Means beginning in the 1960s has been dip-netting the wetlands out here in the Apalachicola National Forest monitoring the amphibian populations,” Rebecca Means recounted, adding that what they found of late wasn’t encouraging; especially for a certain kind of native salamander, or newt.

“What we noticed over the years is that one particular winter-breeding amphibian - the population of striped newts – started declining. So whereas before you could go out and catch them maybe every other time you dip-netted, in the late 90s and into the 2000s you started seeing them less and less and less,” she said.

At the time, North Florida was in the grip of a long drought. Means said this reduced the striped newts' natural breeding habitat – short-term pools of water in the forest – to the vanishing point. So she said her team’s first step was to restore that habitat.

“We put some pond liner, and this is an industrial grade synthetic rubber material, into the bottom of three wetlands. And then put the vegetation in the wetland back on. And the purpose of that was so anytime we got rainwater it would pool instead of percolating into the sandy soils out here.”

But the problem remained, there just weren’t enough newts. So Means had to find some in order to begin a captive breeding program. Eventually, the team hit pay dirt.

“At the time, it was the only known location for the Western Striped Newt in the world. It was at one wetland in Georgia. That’s how critical the population seemed to be of the Western Striped Newt and so we collected some larvae and sent them to some zoos.”

And now, Means and her colleagues are carefully re-introducing this species to the restored areas of its former home.

“Because we just put about 250 newts into these wetlands, we’re hoping over the next few weeks and months to be able to capture them leaving the wetlands. They spent the majority of their lives in the uplands and they migrate down to the wetlands in the winter time to breed.”

Means admitted this may seem like a lot of effort for a undistinguished looking, barely4-inch long salamander. But she insisted everything in nature has a place and a purpose.

“There’s that natural ecology. There’s so much going on in these systems and they’re interconnected in ways that we have no understanding.”

And for those folks who demand nature must serve people, Means had an answer for them as well.

“What if I told you that striped newts eat mosquito larvae? Then people say, ‘Oh, my gosh that’s great! We should conserve the striped newt! Because if the striped newt’s around, we have less mosquitoes.’ And they do eat anything. They’re predators that will eat anything that gets in their mouth.”

Meaning, at least during the summer months, Means’ project to repatriate the striped newt may truly be helping to save humankind.