Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 5, 2017

Biologists search for salamanders, frogs
in Conecuh

On Tuesday night, local biologist Mark Bailey led an expedition through the Conecuh Nation Forest to study the winter-breeding grounds for local amphibians.

“Our expedition was successful in locating botch Eastern Tiger Salamander and Ornate Chorus Frog breeding sites,” Bailey said. “Both of these species are considered species of conservation by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as well as the U.S. Forest Service, and periodic monitoring of their status is necessary to determine population trends.”

These winter-breeding amphibians primarily breed in shallow, fishless, grassy wetlands that fill in the winter, but typically dry out during the summer.

These habitats are the primary breeding ground for several uncommon amphibian species in the area, including the Eastern Tiger Salamander, the Ornate Chorus Frog and the Gopher Frog.

“These habitats have been largely lost or degraded by agriculture, intensive forestry practices, development and exclusion of fire, but many are preserved on the Conecuh National Forest as important components of the longleaf pine ecosystem,” Bailey said. “Fire is a natural process here, and without occasional prescribed fires during the warm season to keep woody growth from taking over, the ponds lose their open character and the grasses in the basin become shaded out, rendering them unsuitable as breeding sites for these sensitive species.”


Along with others, Bailey began monitoring some of the breeding ponds while still a graduate student in the late 1980s, and although he discovered several previously unknown breeding sites, he has seen some of the populations decline and even disappear.

“On the weekends when I was in school, instead of going out to party with my friends I would load up my little car, come down here to the National Forest and camp,” Bailey said. “I had it figured out that I could drive from school and back on $11. I just fell in love with this place and never left.”

Bailey said these uncommon amphibians are part of what make the forest special.

“These animals are the gems of Alabama’s hidden wealth of biodiversity, and they’ve been returning to these same wetlands for centuries, maybe millennia,” Bailey said. “It’s unfortunate that so few people are even aware that they exist. We are witnessing something that only a handful of people get to experience.”

One of 20 salamander species that occur in Covington County, Eastern Tiger Salamanders are black with yellowish blotches and reach a length of up to 13 inches, making them our largest terrestrial species. Males arrive at the breeding sites sometimes weeks before the females, and courtship and breeding may occur on just one or two nights of the year.

If it is still raining the night the female arrives and lays her eggs, she will likely go straight back to her upland burrow.

Bailey said that the males may linger a few weeks in case additional females show up the next time it rains.

The eggs are laid in loose clusters of 10 to 100 and are attached to the base of aquatic vegetation. They hatch in about three or four weeks, depending on water temperature.

The Ornate Chorus Frogs are another uncommon species that breed in the wetlands of the Conecuh National Forest.

“The Ornate Chorus Frogs are without question one of the most attractive of the 25 frog species found in Covington County,” Bailey said. “They are small, just over an inch long. Individuals vary in color from green to pink to pinkish brown, and have dark stripes from the nostrils through the eye to just above the arm. They spend most of their lives underground and are seldom encountered except during the December-March breeding season.”

Bailey said that a calling male usually sits in clumps of grass or on floating debris. The call note, given at the rate of 65 to 85 per minute, is a high pitched “peep” or “peet,” somewhat similar to the notes of the more common Spring Peeper but more sharply abbreviated. The note has been likened to the sound made when a steel chisel is struck with a hammer.

Bailey said that the Ornate Chorus Frogs lay loose egg clusters attached to vegetation and debris. After hatching, tadpoles feed on organic material and are an important prey item for Tiger Salamanders.