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Researchers Study Elusive Mountain Salamander

CLOUDCROFT - Pine-capped mountains soar a mile or more above the deserts that surround them in south-central New Mexico. Winter storms drape blankets of snow over these forests, and the high country summers are short and cool, hardly the place a cold-blooded amphibian would call home.

A Sacramento Mountains salamander crawls on a rock in the Lincoln National Forest, near Cloudcroft. The salamander is the highest-dwelling salamander in North America, living at elevations of 7,000-10,000 feet. (10/26/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

But the highest stretches of the Sacramento, White and Capitan mountains are the only home for the seldom seen Sacramento Mountains salamander.

Why is this environment especially suited to the highest-dwelling salamander in North America? That's exactly what researchers from New Mexico State University want to know.

"It's a hard animal to work with," said NMSU assistant professor Martha Desmond. The pencil-sized salamander emerges above ground for only two months or so in the late summer, when the weather is the wettest. Desmond is the faculty adviser for fishery and wildlife sciences graduate student Stephanie Haan, who is wrapping up a study with both laboratory and field components to examine the relationship between salamander abundance and habitat characteristics, including soil moisture.

Soil moisture levels are critical because the lungless salamanders breathe through their skin, and moisture is necessary for proper gas exchange.

The salamander research is being done alongside a U.S. Forest Service study of the Mexican spotted owl. The brown, mottled salamander is a state-listed threatened species while the owl is a federally protected endangered species. Studies are looking at how both species will be affected by planned thinning of the crowded forest.

"The forests are in poor health," said Desmond. "Fire has been suppressed and they haven't been thinned so the density of the trees is abnormally high. The challenge is to learn how we bring that ecosystem back to a more healthy condition yet minimally affect species of concern."

Haan started the second season of her salamander study in mid-July. With help from the Forest Service and volunteers, she set up four large tanks in a lab outside Cloudcroft, then collected 60 salamanders and placed them inside. Each salamander was marked with a fluorescent dye so that it could be identified at the end of the project, then returned to the precise location where it was captured.

"They are thought to have a home range," Haan said, so returning the animals to their capture sites is important. "They are thought to be territorial."

Haan also has conducted field research this summer with the help of NMSU senior Lisa Mason of El Paso and Tracy Misiewicz, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland. The three set up several plots, where they regularly measured soil pH, temperature and moisture and searched for salamanders under rocks, fallen logs and debris. They are trying to relate soil conditions and other habitat characteristics to salamander numbers.

One morning in early August, the researchers had nearly come up empty-handed in their salamander search. Then, at a plot almost covered with fallen branches and logs, Misiewicz discovered a pair under a partially decomposed tree trunk. The researchers made notes about the circumstances and photographs were taken of the pair. Part of the research is to learn more about salamander habits, so finding two in the same location gives researchers another piece of the puzzle.

Haan's fieldwork ended in mid-September, when she returned the salamanders to the capture sites. After analyzing the data, she'll write her thesis.

After the trees are thinned, researchers will return to the forests to measure the thinning's impact, and perhaps learn more about the salamander.

"It's a unique species and definitely worth studying," said Haan. "Everything's important. Everything has its place in the ecosystem and the food chain."