Intrepid conservation staff poke into the earth’s dark nooks and crannies in search of salamanders, frogs, turtles and other rare creatures. Welcome to the making of Ontario Nature’s Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.
By Peter Christie
John Urquhart is rolling back old logs in this midsummer forest the way a kid in a just-discovered corridor opens door after hallway door. He’s moving from one fallen tree trunk to the next, up a bright wooded slope at Lost Bay Nature Reserve north of Gananoque. He lifts each log gingerly and peers beneath it as if into a dark passage – past a threshold to some secret world.
“There,” he says, as a tiny black shape suddenly skitters from the shadows. It looks at first like a fast escaping beetle, but Urquhart deftly scoops it up and reveals an impossibly small, fully formed salamander, its glistening eyes no bigger than specks.
“Baby redback,” he explains brightly. “This might have hatched a week ago … maybe just days.”
Urquhart pauses with the motionless eastern redback salamander in his palm. It could be a miniature glazed replica of a slender black lizard. The red on its back is barely discernible.
Urquhart blinks with boyish wonder at the creature’s proportions; an animal this tiny is a rare find even for a regular visitor to the cryptic places a rolled log reveals.
“Redback salamanders are the only amphibians in Ontario that don’t have an aquatic larval stage,” he says, beginning a sober biology lesson that seems curiously at odds with his earlier moment of delight. “Other young salamanders and frogs live as tadpoles in ponds and streams. Baby redbacks like this are the only ones to hatch on land looking like miniature adults.”
Urquhart is Ontario Nature’s staff ecologist with the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas project, an ambitious effort to map the whereabouts of some of the province’s most secretive and enigmatic creatures. Like the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas project before it, the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas is gathering observations submitted by hundreds of volunteer naturalists who scour large areas that comprise squares of a grid superimposed on a map of the province. The volunteers then report the species of salamanders, frogs, toads, snakes, turtles and lizards they find there. Started in 2009, the project – spearheaded by Ontario Nature in cooperation with the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and other partners – will also bring together existing amphibian and reptile records from museums and volunteer projects such as the Ontario Turtle Tally, FrogWatch Ontario and the Marsh Monitoring Program.
The new atlas is not only providing important information for conservation biologists and others, it is also raising awareness. While Ontario’s beleaguered snakes and turtles have received a lot of attention recently – 18 of 32 reptiles that have been found here are now considered species or subspecies at risk – many amphibians in the province are also in trouble. The atlas is an overdue opportunity to shift some of the conservation spotlight to these lesser-known and more enigmatic creatures.
Urquhart and his long-time friend and colleague Joe Crowley, the atlas coordinator, are charged with the massive task of orchestrating the enterprise and rallying legions of citizen scientists to help. Of course, when an area of the province needs special attention or when volunteers are not covering an important grid square, the biologist duo takes to the field – “just get dirty,” says Crowley.
This morning, for instance, Crowley is up to his chest in marsh muck, checking nearby turtle traps, while Urquhart shows me around other areas of Lost Bay, Ontario Nature’s recently expanded 101-hectare nature reserve on Gananoque Lake in eastern Ontario. The reserve – and a supportive neighbour’s log cabin – has been a kind of summer home base for Urquhart, who divides his time between atlas work and surveying the property for rare turtles and snakes as part of Ontario Nature’s Reptiles at Risk project.
Our hike keeps a herky-jerky pace as Urquhart constantly interrupts his long strides to look under logs and rocks or to lunge at fleeing frogs. Other redback salamanders turn up, as well as a wood frog, some green frogs and young bullfrogs near a shaded pool. Gray treefrogs, stirred by the warm August sun, trill intermittently from the trees. Beside a lane near the marsh, the summer’s cohort of northern
leopard frogs leaps in deep grass.
After several attempts, Urquhart nabs what he calls an “in-betweener.” It is a pickerel frog, a less-than-common animal usually distinguished from its near-twin species, the leopard frog, by the shape and arrangement of its spots. Usually. The spots on our captive are ambiguous; it doesn’t fit the typical field guide description. Urquhart has to look for other clues to make the identification.
“These animals don’t read the books,” he remarks dryly.
In truth, few people read the books either: amphibians simply don’t get much attention. As a group, they are among our least familiar and most poorly understood animals, apart from insects. Other than during the spring chorus, when common frogs and toads are at least audible, Ontario amphibians are extremely successful at remaining inconspicuous. Even for many naturalists, amphibians are a kind of natural-history blind spot.
The irony is that greater numbers of amphibians live in our forests than do any other land vertebrates, including birds and rodents. More significantly, few other animals are as vital to local ecosystems – as food for other creatures and for moving nutrients into the forest from pools and ponds as they metamorphose from water to land dwellers. Meanwhile, their dual citizenship in both aquatic and terrestrial domains makes amphibians especially qualified as harbingers of environmental change.
“So of course they’re important,” says David Green, speaking by phone from McGill University’s Redpath Museum, where he is a renowned expert on amphibian ecology. “Without the amphibians, who knows what would happen, because they are such a critical cog in the workings of all the ecosystems in eastern Canada – or in the rest of the world.”
Yet these days the cog is showing signs of stress: frogs, toads and salamanders comprise the most at-risk class of animals on the planet. Scientists say a third of the world’s nearly 6,000 known amphibian species are threatened with extinction (compared with 12 percent of all birds and 23 percent of mammals). Nine species are believed to have disappeared since 1980, and another 113 have not been seen in years (see sidebar above). In the tropics, the rate of vanishing amphibian species is threatening to rival some of the great mass extinctions of history.
The news for Ontario’s frogs and salamanders is not as grim. Even so, many of the 27 species and subspecies that have been found in the province – 13 salamanders and 14 frogs and toads – are showing signs of trouble. Eight of them, for instance, are designated threatened, endangered or even extirpated on the Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) list. Seven are also listed on the national species-at-risk list. Three species – eastern tiger salamander, northern spring salamander and Blanchard’s cricket frog – were last reported so long ago that most people consider them gone from the province for good. Meanwhile, populations of formerly common western chorus frogs in eastern Ontario and Quebec have been falling fast in recent years.
“For many of these things, we simply don’t know the reasons,” says Green. “Usually, there are a lot of possible ones.” For example, a deadly outbreak of an amphibian skin fungus is now widely blamed for the massive amphibian die-offs in tropical regions. Closer to home, airborne pollution or toxic runoff can sometimes help explain local crashes of frog and salamander populations. A decade ago, a worrying dip in Ontario bullfrog numbers was linked to a sudden craze among urban gastronomes and restaurateurs for frog legs.
“But the gorilla in the room that’s always there and that no one wants to look at is loss of habitat,” says Green. “Habitat destruction is going on all the time, everywhere, in ways big and small … Human impact wins, always, always.”
Because changes in frog and salamander numbers are really telling us something about how our actions affect the environment, watching these trends is critical, according to Green. That’s why, as much as tracking imperilled species is important for maintaining biodiversity, watching populations of more common animals (such as the suddenly faltering chorus frogs) can sometimes reveal larger-scale ecological trouble.
Yet there’s the rub, says Green: recognizing the warnings from these creature Cassandras is impossible as long as most amphibians remain poorly studied and distant from our consciousness. If we watch only the frogs and salamanders that are already officially considered species at risk, how will we know when others in this enigmatic group are also in crisis?
“We have a real catch-22,” says Green. “You don’t collect the records unless the animal’s listed [as at risk], but it doesn’t get listed unless you have the records.”
That’s where the Reptile and Amphibian Atlas comes in. The project is gathering data on all Ontario species, everywhere in the province, describing in detail how widespread these animals are and providing an invaluable glimpse of how well or poorly they are doing here. Importantly, it is also picking up where an earlier reptile and amphibian atlas project left off.
“I think the timing is good,” says Mike Oldham, a biologist with the MNR’s Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC). “The original atlas provided some good baseline data, but getting back to the sites and doing a re-inventory in these areas will be enormously beneficial to see how things have changed in the past decade and a half.”
Oldham, who is a member of the new Reptile and Amphibian Atlas steering committee of experts, began the original Ontario Herpetofaunal Summary Atlas back in 1984. (Amphibians and reptiles are often collectively called herpetofauna, or sometimes just “herps.”) The project – run on a shoestring budget until about 1994 – collected more than 100,000 records submitted by mainly amateur naturalists. One volunteer even turned up a species unknown in the province – the endangered northern dusky salamander – while surveying for the atlas in the Niagara River Gorge. The project gathered another 30,000 pre-1984 reports from museum collections, scientific literature and old field notes from diligent herpetologists. It was comprehensive and the first herpetological survey of its kind for the province.
“There really hadn’t been an effort to map reptile and amphibian distribution in Ontario other than shaded, field-guide-type range maps,” says Oldham. “So we really filled things in.”
Oldham took the atlas to the NHIC when he joined the centre in the 1990s, but the project became more or less dormant after that (although some records still trickled in). The NHIC continued to formally “track” some reptiles and amphibians, but only species at risk and others considered rare (occurring in fewer than 100 locations in the province). For the most part, our understanding of the whereabouts and population health of the rest of Ontario’s herps drifted once again into relative obscurity – that is, until the new atlas initiative was launched in 2009. This project is expected to release a comprehensive publication after 2014.
“It’s great to see this re-energized,” says Oldham, noting that several important herp-related conservation issues have emerged since the first atlas. “There are, for example, many more reptiles listed as species at risk. And there’s the whole amphibian decline issue that hit the press well after the first atlas was started. This is really going to be helpful for conservation.”
Back at cabin headquarters near Lost Bay, Urquhart sits back in an old kitchen chair and explains other ways in which times have changed since the first atlas surveys. The lanky biologist was barely four years old – a year away from his first pet turtle, he says – when Oldham began the original project. Now, thanks to an easy-to-use atlas website and online data sheets, submitting and compiling records is far faster and easier than in Oldham’s days, when summer students input thousands of handwritten sheets. The ubiquity of digital cameras (almost every cell phone has one) now makes getting and submitting photographic confirmation of an observation almost effortless. What’s more, the Internet-accessible descriptions and up-to-date distribution maps – the online atlas will be updated yearly – mean volunteers can find out right away if a sighting is unusual or outside of a species’ known range.
“It really gets back to getting people involved,” Urquhart says. “A large part of what we want to do is to get more people helping out – to get more people even just to think about these animals.”
Getting the word out is not simply a virtual exercise. In the project’s first year, Urquhart and Crowley also organized 45 outreach events for local naturalist clubs, conservation authorities and parks across the province – including about 20 workshops, during which hikes in the field offered participants a taste of what atlas work would be like. These recruiting efforts take time, Urquhart says, but the payout for the atlas is huge: in the first season alone, volunteers and conservation groups submitted more than 11,000 records.
“It’s citizen science,” says Urquhart. “There’s no other way to get this kind of information. These animals are hard to find. More people covering more ground is better.”
It’s work for explorers, in other words, charting what is a somewhat fugitive geography. For Urquhart, the pursuit is perfectly suited to his singular curiosity. The effort is also one that he is confident will benefit the creatures – especially amphibians. The atlas information is being shared directly with the government recovery teams helping species at risk, and researchers exploring other amphibian conservation issues will also have access to the findings. “We just need to know more,” Urquhart says, singling out salamanders as “a big data gap.”
“It’s pretty hard to manage these populations when a lot of the time you don’t know where they are,” he adds. “If we know where they are, for example, you can build around them. If we don’t know, they’re screwed.”