Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Spring Bioblitz 2012: The Hunt for Plethodon ainsworthi

     The following article is a guest post by Brian Folt. Brian is a Ph.D. student at Auburn University, where he studies the community ecology of amphibians and reptiles. He grew up in the Midwest and received a B.S. from Ohio University in 2011. Brian conducted field work in Costa Rica for his undergraduate thesis and is interested in future tropical ecology work. Brian is an avid hiker and a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.
     At some point in the late 1980s, Dr. James Lazell, a conservation biologist, found two strange salamanders -- in a museum -- that were collected in 1964 near Bay Springs, Mississippi, by the late naturalist Harold Jackson Ainsworth. The animals resembled slimy salamanders of the genus Plethodon…. But these two were different. Compared to other slimy salamanders, the specimens had more elongate bodies, shorter limbs, and lacked a color pattern. Surely, Lazell thought, these were something different, a new species.

            Throughout the 1990s, Dr. Lazell undertook efforts to find more individuals of the purported species. Alone or with colleagues, Lazell visited and searched the site (at least 15 times!) where the two specimens were originally collected. They used various searching methods but were ultimately unable any additional animals.

            Dr. Lazell consulted colleagues at various herpetological meetings: some were impressed and encouraged him to write a new species description, but others were skeptical, as the specimens were poorly preserved. Despite the mixed criticism, Lazell officially published his description in the journal Copeia in 1998, formally naming the species Plethodon ainsworthi, in honor of the man who collected the only two known individuals. At the end of the description, Lazell urges the state of Mississippi to encourage future searches for this species.

A Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca)
found while searching for the Bay
Springs Salamander. Their choruses can
be deafening!
            To this end, colleagues from Auburn University and the University of Georgia (UGA) organized a bioblitz to search for the lost Plethodon ainsworthi. Bioblitzes are competitive events where rival schools face off and search for amphibian and reptile species in a given area and time frame. At least five bioblitzes have occurred in recent years with various schools participating, including Auburn, UGA, and University of Alabama, among others. Past ‘blitzes have commonly come in two forms. Some focus heavily on searching for a specific rare or imperiled species, such as the 2010 effort to document Alabama hellbender populations, a species critically endangered in the state. Other ‘blitzes are broader in scope and seek to rapidly survey overall amphibian and reptile biodiversity, especially in historically under-surveyed regions. For example, previous bioblitz competitions between Auburn and UGA (like this one, or this one) have documented common and rare species, such as Green Anoles, (Anolis carolinensis) and River Frogs (Lithobates heckscheri)  in counties where they were previously unknown. However, unlike previous ‘blitzes, the spring 2012 effort would be unique. We were ambitious. We planned to synthesize both previous bioblitz-forms in an effort to rediscover the lost Bay Springs Salamander while simultaneously assessing herpetofaunal diversity in an under-sampled area, Jasper County, Mississippi.

            Coming into April 2012, Auburn University was undefeated in bioblitz competitions, a point of pride among current and former Guyer lab members. However, as a first year student in the lab and a rookie ‘blitzer, I was nervous to keep the streak alive. What if this was the year that UGA would finally out-compete us? My name would surely be shamed… With this healthy fear in mind, I rallied the troops, did the background research, obtained the proper permits, and set out to search every nook and cranny of Jasper County, Mississippi.

Pigmy Rattlesnake-my first!
            The weekend of the ‘blitz, David Laurencio and I got out to the Jasper area first and started hitting the Bienville National Forest hard. The goal was to tick off common species quickly, so we could search specific areas for other more rare species later on. We cruised the area scouting out a few encouraging spots. We efficiently checked off animals like Green Anoles, Yellow-bellied Watersnakes (Nerodia erythrogaster), Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina), and Black Racers (Coluber constrictor). After leaving one productive site, we were cruising down a dirt road…when I yelled for Dave to, “Stop the car!” I hopped out and raced around behind the vehicle to discover a Pigmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius) hanging out on the road shoulder!

            Unlike Timber (Crotalus horridus) or Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus), pigmies are much smaller variety of rattler. This adult was no longer than 30 cm in total length. In Alabama, they are a secretive species of snake that is rarely seen, except during late summer and early autumn. Some folks refer to them as the “September snake”, because the pigmies are most commonly found that time of the year. Excited by recording a species that UGA surely wouldn’t get, we continued on.

UGA often can't find many species because they're either too
busy photographing the few animals they do see or checking
in with their significant others
            After the rest of our team arrived, we split up into smaller groups and set out in search of specific targets. One team visited rivers looking for turtles and water snakes, while another team searched floodplains for salamanders and small snakes. Auburn’s ability to successfully divide and conquer is what has set us apart from UGA in the past, and this year was no different.

            A theme of the trip was finding “sets”. Of species that probably occur in the area, we successfully found all four species of skink, both species of brown snake, and both species of earth snake. Sure, we found at least one species for most genera in the area… But our ability to collect the “sets” is what ultimately made our species list so formidable.

            Although the atmosphere of the Spring 2012 Bioblitz was largely competitive, we did team up with the UGA gang to target Plethodon ainsworthi. After the charismatic Todd Pierson, the UGA master chief, obtained us landowner permission, we searched the type locality (the site where the only two known specimens were collected), both during the day and at night. The type locality (a series of connected springs in forest that was previously harvested but is now growing back) was home to a number of amphibian and reptile species. But, alas, we didn’t find any Bay Springs Salamanders either here or at other good-looking springs nearby.

The spring 2012 Bioblitzers
L to R: Danny, Todd, Jeff, Brian, Sean, Jeff. Not pictured is David L.
Great job, fellas!
            After a whirlwind weekend of herps, PB&Js, PBRs, campfires, and camaraderie, both teams met at the campsite to compare species lists and declare a victor. At this point, nobody should be surprised to hear that Auburn won the competition, documenting over twice as many species as UGA. War Damn Eagle! Auburn’s strategy to divide and conquer and to document species “sets” proved successful. A shout out to Jeff Goessling, Scott Goetz, Danny Thompson, and Sean Graham here is necessary, as they also made the weekend such a great success and fun time.

            The Guyer laboratory at Auburn University gladly welcomes future Bioblitz challenges. And while we didn’t rediscover Plethodon ainsworthi in the Spring 2012 ‘blitz, we did find an amphibian species new to the state of Mississippi. More to come on that in the future.


Want to learn more? Check out these articles:

Lazell, J. (1998). New Salamander of the Genus Plethodon from Mississippi Copeia, 1998 (4) DOI: 10.2307/1447343

Graham, S., Steen, D., Nelson, K., Durso, A., & Maerz, J. (2010). An Overlooked Hotspot? Rapid Biodiversity Assessment Reveals a Region of Exceptional Herpetofaunal Richness in the Southeastern United States Southeastern Naturalist, 9 (1), 19-34 DOI: 10.1656/058.009.0102

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