‘Snapshots in Time’: Spotting a Spotted Salamander

By April 13th, 2015 at 9:06 am | Comment 1

Citizen scientists on a field trip to spot wood frogs and spotted salamanders. Image Credit: Chase Mclean.

Citizen scientists on a field trip to spot wood frogs and spotted salamanders. Image Credit: Chase Mclean.

by Aditi Joshi

Are you a resident of the northern US or Canada? You can help scientists to spot amphibians!

Welcome Spring! As the temperature rises, the beauty of spring unfolds: snow melts, flowers bloom, and birds begin to chirp. In the amphibian world, spring marks the beginning of breeding activities. Among amphibians, wood frogs and spotted salamanders are usually the first to breed, laying eggs (spawns) in short-lived pools, ponds and wetlands.

Scientists like Dr. Stephen Spear, from the Orianne Society, are interested in monitoring amphibian breeding activity for further insight into the effect of climatic changes on certain ecosystems. For instance, a cold spell in spring may disrupt the breeding activities of amphibians. Additionally, the presence of commonly found amphibian species, such as wood frogs and spotted salamanders, indicates a relatively healthy landscape, which helps determine important conservation areas.

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) in wetlands. Image Credit: Pete Oxford

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) in wetlands. Image Credit: Pete Oxford

Monitoring the timing of breeding activity can be tricky. Wood frogs and spotted salamanders are found in wetlands across various states, including Alaska, southeastern states such as Georgia and Tennessee, northeastern states such as New York and Maine, and large parts of Canada. Realizing a small team would be ineffective in monitoring wood frogs and spotted salamanders widely distributed across the U.S. and Canada, the scientists sought support from citizen scientists.

Last year, the Orianne Society launched the citizen science project ‘Snapshots in Time’, providing participants with a unique opportunity to identify, observe, and photograph the various stages of amphibian life that they found near their homes. In 2014, citizen scientists contributed over 100 such observations. More observations reported from southern states as compared to northern states, likely due to the differences in the breeding season. In states such as North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan, breeding season spans from April to June, unlike southern states where breeding activity begins in January. This year, the project hopes for more observations from the northern states. Compared to the adult and egg stages of amphibian life, larvae are more difficult to spot, and only 15 percent of the observations were of the larvae and metamorphic stages. Some participants were able to see a fascinating courtship ritual – a well choreographed dance by salamanders to attract their partners.

According to Dr. Spear, spotted salamanders live on land but breed in wetlands. People who study spotted salamanders look forward to ‘mass migration’, an intriguing breeding activity where, on a rainy night, salamanders parade en masse from land to wetlands. That’s an exciting natural history experience.

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Aditi Joshi, a freelance science writer, is an expert in the field of clinical psychophysiology. She holds a PhD in Human Physiology from the University of Oregon and has published several academic papers. Apart from science, she is interested in Native American art, and art history.

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