Salamander study underway at Waterton Lakes National Park
Published Saturday, June 6, 2009 6:27PM MDT
U of A researchers are trying to figure out just how many long toed salamanders there are in Waterton Lakes National Park.
Last year, Parks Canada spent thousands of dollars on four tunnels to allow the salamanders safe passage across the main highway into the resort town.
"They spend most of their time in terrestrial habitats," said Barb Johnston with Parks Canada. "So on land, and we think the population spends most of its time on the hill behind me, we call it Salamander Hill, and they are really susceptible to drying out, so these creatures live mostly underground in small mammal burrows, or under rocks and things."
While the salamanders live on land, they breed and lay their eggs in water.
Before fish were introduced into the park, the creature was at the top of the aquatic food chain.
A year ago, Parks Canada had four tunnels installed on the main access road to Waterton.
With the help of motion activated cameras, wardens know the salamanders are using them.
Johnston says population surveys indicate that, in 1996, there were upwards of 4,000 salamanders there, but in 2001, they dropped to only 300, and last year were estimated at 1,500.
"That does sound alarming, with huge fluctuations, and part of that is due to the mortality on the road. Part of it though is just amphibians usually have a huge fluctuation in their population size, and that's because they're so dependent on environmental conditions, water temperatures, and things like that."
When long toed salamanders are captured, they're measured, weighed, and marked so researchers can collect data on the same creatures year after year.
"It's our mandate to try and protect the animals that are here," said Johnston. "When we have a human-caused mortality, something that we know we've done that's impacting a population of a species, we do what we can to mitigate this, and this has been a long time coming and it seems to be a mitigation that's working."
Wardens say they've seen salamander mortality hit by cars drop from 44 per cent of the population down to zero.
They also say their motion cameras installed in the tunnels are showing that tiger salamanders, snakes, toads and small mammals like rabbits, skunks and squirrels are using the tunnels as well.