Critical period for amphibian reproduction at Dog Pond

“Hopefully if people are a little more aware that if they go into wetlands they might endanger or impact the survival of our amphibian friends.”

CANMORE – Long-toed salamanders are particularly sensitive to disturbance and habitat loss.

So much so that a section of Dog Pond near Quarry Lake has been roped off since 2016 to mark off an area where dogs are not allowed to go to protect breeding amphibians such as salamanders, wood frogs , Columbia Spotted Frogs, and Boreal Species/Western Toads each spring.

However, in recent years the rope has been cut and vandalized, meaning there’s no indication to dog owners that their pets aren’t meant to go past the buoys where the amphibians lay their eggs.

The researchers say that the long-toed salamanders, which are considered a species of special concern in Alberta, need both aquatic and terrestrial habitats to survive, noting that they are particularly vulnerable when breeding.

Vicki Perkins, environmental education coordinator for the West Kananaskis Country for Alberta Parks who helps oversee citizen science amphibian monitoring programs, came across the cut rope at Dog Pond a few weeks ago.

“My concern is that for three years, from 2020 to this year, the buoy line has been cut and vandalized so that there is no longer a visual barrier to separate the breeding area from the canine area” , she said.

“One side he had been totally cut, the other he had been detached from the post…I ended up swimming up to my waist trying to untangle him.”

The rope was installed by the Town of Canmore around 2016 and there is also a fence along the back part of the pond to discourage people from entering from that direction.

The primary goal was to restrict dog access across the pond to protect remaining healthy riparian habitat important for salamander egg laying.

“They’re incredibly sensitive to human disturbance and habitat loss, which we see at Dog Pond,” Perkins said.

“You see where the dogs come in, there is no vegetation, the riparian area has been destroyed. The habitat in the back is still quite healthy, so the back part of Dog Pond is actually d crucially important.

Perkins said the buoy line is also meant to keep dogs from stirring up water and mud aft.

“When the dogs go into the water and they stir up the bottom, it increases the turbidity,” she said. “If sediment in the water gets on the eggs, it compromises the survival of the eggs.”

Mating of salamanders occurs in early spring, often before ponds are completely ice-free. Eggs take about three weeks to hatch, and young-of-the-year salamanders emerge from ponds in late summer. However, they cannot reproduce every year.

Perkins said this time of year is critical for amphibian breeding success.

“The ice leaves, they lay their eggs, then they go through metamorphosis into their adult stage and eventually leave the pond,” she said.

In Alberta, the Long-toed Salamander is listed as Special Concern due to its limited breeding range, isolated populations within its declining range, and susceptibility to various types of habitat disturbance. Some populations are declining.

Found in several locations along the western edge of the province, long-toed salamanders typically spend most of their lives on land and travel to ponds to breed.

Breeding ponds are usually permanent, shallow, and fishless.

Recognized for the yellow or olive-green stripe from head to tip of tail – which can be divided into a series of spots – adult salamanders can reach up to 15 centimeters in body length. This species of salamander is not found much further east than the Bow Valley.

“Hopefully if people are a little more aware, that if they go into wetlands, they might endanger or impact the survival of our amphibian friends,” Perkins said.

“Long-toed salamanders are critical due to their status and limited range in the Rocky Mountains…you don’t catch them as soon as you get to Bow Valley Provincial Park.

Dog Pond is one of approximately 35 ponds in Kananaskis and the Bow Valley area that is part of an adopt-a-pond initiative overseen by Alberta Parks locally as a citizen science program associated with Researching Amphibian Numbers in Alberta (RANA).

Initiated in 1996, RANA aims to collect long-term data and detailed information on amphibian populations and to promote public knowledge of amphibians. Data is submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Management Information System database.

Locally, a team of volunteers monitors ponds each spring for salamanders, wood frogs, Columbia spotted frogs, and boreal/western toads.

“It’s about looking at reproductive success; what ponds do they use, do they lay eggs, how many eggs, presence and absence of species,” said Perkins, who helps oversee the program.

“We have historical records, and I know all four species have been at Dog Pond because I’ve seen them.”

In the fall, pitfall traps are set in a pond near Quarry Lake as part of the citizen science project.

“It looks at reproductive success, like how many species actually survived and left the pond. They’re counted, they’re weighed,” Perkins said.

As an environmental educator, Perkins wants to raise awareness about amphibians and their importance.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on grizzly bears and large-scale wildlife corridors, and those are critically important, but I think there’s a lack of understanding of some of these little creatures with which we share this environment and the need to access different bodies of water,” she said.

“Amphibians are in decline all over the world – and are the canary in the coal mine – and so having an understanding of what is happening to their population allows us to understand on another level what is happening in the environment. “

University of Calgary doctoral student Emily Baumgartner also does salamander research at Dog Pond and about 20 other sites in the Bow Valley and Kananaksis Country.

Minnow traps, also known as aquatic funnel traps, are currently being installed at Dog Pond as part of Baumgartner’s research. Amphibians captured in passive traps are weighed, measured and swabbed for stress hormones before being released back into the pond unharmed.

“What we know about the status of the long-toed salamanders is that they don’t seem to be doing well,” Baumgartner said.

“My goal is just to get a better idea of ​​what that status is and hopefully get some information to support conservation in the future.”

Baumgartner is also disappointed that the buoy line at Dog Pond was deliberately destroyed.

“Protecting the back edge of Dog Pond is really important because there’s a lot of vegetation and branches and that’s what they really need to lay their eggs,” Baumgartner said.

“At the front of the pond there isn’t much vegetation and a lot of it is due to dog traffic coming in and out of the pond so they can really disturb the eggs and the larvae when they first develop.”

The research project covers about 20 ponds, including Dog Pond and seven others within a three kilometer radius in the area. The other ponds are near Exshaw and along the Highway 40 corridor between Barrier Lake and Kananaskis Village.

Baumgartner said amphibians are an important part of the ecosystem.

“They are prey for predatory fish and small mammals, and they also help keep ponds clean because their young clean up algae and other plant matter,” Baumgartner said.

“The thing that I think humans are most concerned about is that they eat parasites; insects like mosquitoes and spiders to keep these populations under control.

Baumgartner’s fieldwork began in mid-April and will continue through late August.

“I think we all really enjoy spending time in nature, and respecting that nature as best we can will help us enjoy it for longer,” Baumgartner said.

“We want the amphibians to be able to use the habitat like us, and that way we can live and coexist without getting in each other’s way too much.”

The Province of Alberta has a Conservation Management Plan for the Long-toed Salamander.

The 2016 plan identifies human presence and associated disturbance as one of the greatest threats to the persistence of the long-toed salamander populations.

“Evidence from the Bow Valley suggests that human activity (eg, dog walking and ATVs) in and around ponds can destroy eggs,” he says.

“As long-lived adults producing many young with a low probability of survival, reductions in the adult portion of the population will have lasting effects.”