Saving the Santa Cruz Long-Toed Salamander

This time last year, drought conditions made the outlook for the Santa Cruz Long-Toed Salamander breeding season bleak indeed—until dedicated Fish & Wildlife Service staffers intervened.

by Madeleine Turner

March 1, 2016—Last February, Diane Kodama and other Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge staff stood on the banks of Buena Vista Pond, west of Watsonville. The team looked out in despair—the pond was less than a foot deep, less than half its normal depth for that time of year.

It meant something had to be done, and fast. This pond and surrounding vernal pools are habitat of Santa Cruz Long-Toed Salamanders, four-inch-long morsels with yellow stripes on their backs. They only live in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, and in 1967, they became listed as endangered.

In normal years, adults emerge from burrows and travel over a mile to lay eggs in the seasonal ponds. Adults forgo migration in dry years when there's not enough water for salamander larvae to grow. This may happen during 2 or 3 year drought cycles. But now we've seen 3 consecutive years of drought—a hazardous length of time to go without breeding.

This is why, by mid-March, 11 hundred-gallon tubs sat behind the Fish and Wildlife Service’s office off Buena Vista Road. The tubs—equipped with filtration systems and topped with rushes and sedges—would become refuge for salamander larvae.

By the time the tubs were rigged, the team needed to act swiftly. Staff and volunteers returned to ponds, nets in hand, to rescue larvae. To stop larger salamanders from cannibalizing their slighter kin in the tubs, the team spent time measuring each salamander and sorting them by size.

Read Is A New Species of Giant Salamander Living Under UCSC?

Then the lucky captives were carried up a hill to the tubs. After a few suspenseful hours of acclimation, larvae seemed right at home. As Kodama later wrote in the Fish and Wildlife Service's Tideline Newsletter, “onlookers breathe[d] a sigh of relief.”

By May, Buena Vista Pond was dry, and staff were the anxious parents of over 400 salamander larvae. They fed frozen blood worms (actually a common pet food) to larvae and watched to see if they were eating. Staff tested the water to make sure levels of oxygen, pH, ammonia and nitrates were just right.

Their time and attention paid off. Larger larvae quickly showed signs of metamorphosis—gills shrivelled and their skin darkened. Staff installed floating platforms, making sure the tubs would be suitable for adult salamanders. Then, one day soon after, they discovered two fully fledged adults.

Last August, Kodama and staff released 300 Santa Cruz Long-Toed Salamanders into the wild. They stood for a while, watching salamanders disappear into vegetation. Eventually the salamanders headed upland and burrowed underground, not to emerge until next year's rain. Wrote Kodama, “We savor the moment.”

The team hopes there will be enough rain to forgo another rescue operation in coming years. For now, they wait.

Read more about Kodama’s experience rearing larvae in Tideline Newsletter.

Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge isn’t open to the public. If groups are highly interested in seeing the Refuge, they can request a guided tour. Find contact information here.