Species at Risk Spotlight: Frosted Flatwoods Salamander




Frosted Flatwoods Salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum)

NatureServe Global Status: Imperiled (G2)

Frosted flatwoods salamander. Photo by USGS.

The frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum), aptly named for both its environment and distinctive appearance, has struggled to persist as its longleaf pine habitat in the United States has disappeared. Sporting a cross-banded pattern of gray, wavy lines, these slender black salamanders are endemic to a small portion of the coastal plain in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Like many other plants and animals threatened by the loss of longleaf pine ecosystems, the federally protected salamander is imperiled throughout its historical range. With careful management and increased restoration efforts targeted at its native habitat, however, there may still be hope for the seldom-seen amphibian.

Highly specialized within the vibrant ecosystem it calls home, the frosted flatwoods salamander relies on ephemeral ponds—shallow, isolated depressions that flood only seasonally—for breeding and development of its young. Before the ponds fill with water in late winter and early spring, females lay their eggs on dry ground beneath leaf litter or near crayfish burrows. Only once the depressions are inundated by water do the eggs hatch into larvae, out of reach of predatory fishes. The young salamanders then embark on a perilous overland journey to reach their upland habitat, where they live and grow in burrows underground. According to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI), a NatureServe network program, migrating up to a mile under the cover of night to and from breeding ponds can be risky business for these nocturnal animals—adults and juveniles are often killed by passing vehicles while attempting to cross roads. For this reason, connectivity between breeding ponds and upland habitat is essential to the frosted flatwoods salamander's survival.

Current state conservation status of the frosted flatwoods salamander in the United States. Source: NatureServe.The foremost driver of the salamander’s decline is the loss of its longleaf pine habitat, which supports an incredible array of wildlife species that contribute to the region’s status as a biodiversity hotspot. Once common across the southeastern United States, longleaf pine is now reduced to just 3% of its historical extent, a victim of widescale development, agricultural expansion, generalized harvesting of pine, and fire suppression. As a result, in Georgia, the frosted flatwoods salamander is now critically imperiled, with just a single breeding population remaining. In an effort to maintain and grow this population, conservationists pump water into breeding ponds when rains are insufficient to fill them naturally. Scientists are also attempting to rear captive populations and release them into remaining suitable habitat in the wild. In Florida, the salamander is faring somewhat better, with two relatively strong breeding populations remaining in Apalachicola National Forest and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Still, even large populations of the species are at risk across their range as their habitats are degraded, fragmented, and destroyed by human encroachment. 

NatureServe and our network programs in the Southeast are working to improve outcomes for longleaf pine ecosystems and species like the frosted flatwoods salamander that rely on them. NatureServe, with input from partners including FNAI and the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, developed and refined rapid assessment metrics to help land managers understand the wildlife habitat value and ecological integrity of open pine ecosystems occurring on their properties, allowing for better management of the lands most important for conserving at-risk species. FNAI also developed and maintains two shared geospatial databases—the Florida Longleaf Geodatabase and Southeast Longleaf Geodatabase—that document longleaf pine locations and conditions across their range, improving our understanding of where intact or degraded stands occur. And most recently, NatureServe and FNAI developed a habitat suitability model for the frosted flatwoods salamander that more precisely identifies exactly where within longleaf pine stands the salamander is most likely to be found, allowing conservationists to better focus their field surveys and protection efforts. 

Only with continued monitoring and management of the frosted flatwoods salamander, together with restoration of its longleaf pine habitat, might this elusive threatened species beat its alarming odds of extinction. Support NatureServe today to ensure that decision-makers are armed with the best available data to protect the fates of at-risk species and their habitats. 

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