Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Searching for amphibians in local wetlands

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications


We’re on the lookout for the wetlands version of a needle in a haystack: small beads, clumped together in tiny masses, hanging to the sides of sticks and logs, submerged under dark, muddy water. But the dozen wader-wearing volunteers in Carkeek Park on a Saturday morning are up for the task. 
A trained volunteer wades into the wetlands at Carkeek Park. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
These are citizen scientists and they have studied and practiced for this—the search for amphibian egg masses in our own parks and backyards.
Amphibians once occupied pristine wetlands across the Pacific Northwest. But now their marshy homes often flow into or crash up against urban and developing areas. Amphibians are closer than we often realize, and our actions impact them deeply.
The endangered Oregon spotted frog is one of eight species the citizen scientists are monitoring. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.
With their permeable skin, amphibians and their health are a direct reflection of the health of their habitat. Urban pollution and pesticide run-off contaminate amphibians and their wetland homes, while our ever-expanding communities shrink their habitat.  
Citizen scientists working in local parks are easy to spot with these bright orange vests. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
To protect amphibians—frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians—we need to understand better where their populations are and how they are doing. Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Northwest Trek and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are partnering together for the Amphibian Monitoring Program to gather that critical intel on amphibian populations in our urban and suburban landscapes. But we can’t do it alone.
A group of volunteers have narrowed in on the location of possible egg masses. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
When the zoo first opened the citizen science training class last year, it filled up so quickly that many of this year’s citizen scientists were actually from last year’s waitlist. This year’s crop of volunteers, including nearly 60 adults and 17 youth, have committed to no small task. 
They train to identify amphibian egg masses and adults, then make an excursion once a month from February to August to survey a local pond or wetland for sightings. They must record and submit their findings to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to be entered into the study’s data. 
The volunteer group surveys the site at Carkeek Park. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
In Carkeek Park, this year’s training class is doing a field exercise—the final step before they are on their own for the season. We’re walking along the boardwalks that overlook the wetlands in the park. The citizen scientists have come prepared. They sport waterproof scopes to help them look for the tiniest egg masses, GPS units to identify the exact location of their findings, digital cameras to make a visual record of their findings, and data sheets to record it all accurately at the moment of discovery.
A young volunteer uses a waterproof scope to see through the water more clearly. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
They carry field guides to help them tell apart the egg masses of eight species the study is particularly concerned with: western toad, Northwestern salamander, northern red-legged frog, Pacific tree frog, Oregon spotted frog, rough-skinned newt, long-toed salamander, and the American bullfrog (an invasive species).
Dr. Jenny Pramuk, Woodland Park Zoo’s curator of reptiles, recommends amphibian field guides to the volunteers to help with identifying egg masses. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
The volunteers wade into the water or tip themselves over the edge of the boardwalk to get a closer look. They carefully overturn some logs and sticks in the water, looking for evidence of egg masses or adult amphibians. But please, don’t try this at home. The volunteers receive an extensive lesson in bio-security protocols to ensure contaminants are not moved across sites and habitats are not disturbed irrevocably.
Volunteers receive extensive bio-security protocol training to protect contaminants at one site from being traipsed into another. One key step? Decontaminate muddy boots after a monitoring session. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
Soon they spot bead-like clumps—long-toed salamander eggs. No adults were seen, but the eggs give us the evidence we need that these salamanders are calling Carkeek Park home. The volunteers note their findings, and the season is off to a promising start.
Long-toed salamander eggs clumped along a stick. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
The training is a success—not just because we spot some masses to enter into the study’s data, but because the citizen scientists are feeling confident that they can do this on their own next time. Each volunteer has committed to a season of monitoring. We don’t know what they’ll find, but we know whatever they learn, it’ll be the key to making informed decisions about habitat protection, the key to giving amphibians a better chance in the Northwest. 
Want to do your part to help amphibians in the Northwest? Sign up to receive notification when the 2014 citizen science training begins. You can also help just by thinking about your everyday choices at home. Here are some easy things you can do to help amphibians: 
1. Reduce pollutants to native amphibian habitat by eliminating chemical pesticides from your gardening practices. Pesticides get into water, which runs away from your garden and flows into surrounding water systems, bringing contaminants into wildlife habitat.
2. Improve the quality of wildlife habitat necessary for native wildlife survival by joining a habitat restoration program in your community. Looking for a program? Try our Backyard Habitat classes or read our Education department’s Backyard Habitat blog which posts upcoming opportunities around the region.
3. Take care not to release unwanted pets or animals into wild habitat—invasive species can outcompete or prey on native amphibians, and introduced animals can spread diseases that are harmful to wildlife and people. Call your local animal shelter to find a new home for an unwanted pet. 
4. Get tips on co-existing peacefully with frogs and other wildlife in your own backyard at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s helpful Living with Wildlife website. 
What will you do to help amphibians?

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