Saint Martin students help Western Australian newts reach breeding pond

There is a walk going on in the wild spaces of Lacey. Above the leaves and around the blades of grass, thousands of little feet walk with a single purpose.

It’s the season of love for rough-skinned newt.

Amphibians in love, looking for a mate, spent hours or even days heading to a group of retention ponds on the edge of Saint Martin University where they can finally find a … desirable fence?

A newt-proof fence, it turns out.

The fences were built to contain an unwanted invasive amphibian, the African clawed frog. But now biologists have discovered that they prevent newts from entering ponds to breed.

“This is a classic conservation problem where we are mitigating the negative impacts of this invasive species,” said the Saint Martin biology professor. Megan Friesen. “But in doing so, we are creating a conservation problem for one of our native amphibians.”

Now, Friesen and his students have put together a bucket brigade of newts to help the languid amphibians get over the wall. More than 1,000 species of salamanders have been transported to their aquatic love nests.

African clawed frogs

the frogs were discovered in 2015. Soon, fencing was being put up by the town of Lacey and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to contain the frogs, according to Max Lambert, the department’s “frog guy.”

Frogs are not from here, as their name suggests, and are not welcome. They eat a lot, Lambert said, and their favorite meal seems to be their neighbors.

“We’re really worried about them eating our native species of amphibians as tadpoles or even young fish,” Lambert said.

Fish and Wildlife have tried trapping them, but it doesn’t take much to repopulate a pond. The ministry obtained a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to add salt to ponds in 2017. This killed over 6,000 frogs.

But some survived.

“The frogs actually crawled through the storm drains out of the pond,” Lambert said. “And then when the water cleared up, they recolonized it.”

A gathering of newts

Friesen and Lambert began collaborating in 2021 to study clawed frogs in hopes of stopping their spread.

In March, they met at the ponds to perform a routine check on frog developments, Friesen said. But it was the salamanders that quickly dominated their sightings.

“We just started noticing that there are all these newts trying to get into the various stormwater ponds and getting trapped,” she said.

In some areas, newts pile up like chain wreckage on a salamander highway.

“It was just crazy,” she recalls. “They were walking in the gravel, a strange place to see an amphibian.”

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A rough-skinned newt rests in a water retention pond near Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Tony Overman [email protected]

They found over 100 newts that first day.

“Once we moved them over the fence, they all went straight into the water,” she said. “As if it was clear that this was their natural migratory path…in this waterway.”

The ponds are relatively new, so Friesen and Lambert believe newts have colonized them.

Take this frog and…

If there was a list of the most wanted invasive species, the African clawed frog would be on it. It’s not the frog’s fault. It was introduced all over the world for a reason that, by today’s standards, seems bizarre.

“People who wanted to know if they were pregnant would literally peeing on an african clawed frog in the doctor’s office, and if they were pregnant, they had enough hormones to cause female clawed frogs to ovulate and lay eggs,” Lambert said.

The frogs were then released into tanks.

Today, there are over-the-counter pregnancy tests, but frogs remain coveted by the pet black market. It is illegal to possess and sell them in Washington.

Non-native species can spread disease to native species, including salmon. The frogs have tested positive for ranavirus.

It is not known how the frogs were introduced to Lacey’s Ponds. Often a well-meaning pet owner releases an animal into the wild rather than killing it. But this action can lead to the death of native species.

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The water retention ponds near Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, have a problem with invasive African clawed frogs. The upper part of the three ponds is shown on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Tony Overman [email protected]

Frogs are almost entirely aquatic, Lambert said, and will only cross land if their pond dries up or poison is introduced.

Other clawed frog populations have been found in Bothell and Issaquah, Lambert said.

Helper newts

Friesen’s students were already ready to work in the ponds, trapping clawed frogs to study.

The problem, while serious for newts, would become a lesson for students.

Students picked up 250 stuck newts the first day Friesen took his students to the ponds.

She asked for volunteers to monitor the ponds. Nearly half of his students volunteered.

Now the students go to the ponds almost every day to rescue and relocate the newts.

Since then, more than 1,000 newts have been collected by the students of Saint-Martin and immediately released into the ponds they desperately sought to reach.

On a hot day last week, Saint Martin environmental studies students Dioni Roberson and Quin Butler patrolled along the fence, buckets in hand.

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Saint Martin junior Quin Butler (left) and senior Dioni Roberson search for newts trapped by frog fencing in water retention ponds near Saint Martin University in Lacey, Wash., on Wednesday, April 6 2022. Tony Overman [email protected]

Each of the three ponds is surrounded by two plastic fabric fences just short enough for a person to step over but monumental for newts. Sometimes students would find a newt hidden under a fold.

The women said the work helped them understand amphibian life cycles. It was also an extension of their childhood.

“Growing up, I played in mud and dirt a lot and collected all types of bugs,” Roberson said.

“I was always catching snakes, and we just had pet snakes and then obviously our parents made us let them go,” Butler said.

Nearby, a garter snake was gliding along a fence.

The students were excited to help the newts, especially the young ones, barely an inch long.

“I find great interest in them,” Butler said. “I think they’re really good. And I think they’re really cute too.

Butler makes newts the subject of his senior research project.

Consider the newt

It’s hard not to love a newt. It’s the sloths of the forest, a gecko in slow motion. Their forward-facing eyes and hint of a smile seem more befitting of a cartoon character than an amphibian.

When not heading for water, they are often found in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They are dry to the touch and wiggle slightly when picked up. Their dark brown uppers contrast with the bright yellow-orange undersides.

All newts are salamanders but not all salamanders are newts. The rough-skinned newt ranges from California to British Columbia and as far east as Idaho and Montana. They eat slugs, worms, and any other invertebrates they can find.

Newts, which can grow up to 8 inches long, use their tails to swim skillfully in water but are slow on land where they spend most of their lives.

Even the laziest predator could gobble them up effortlessly. But the newts live, unmolested, thanks to an effective deterrent.

They contain tetrodotoxinone of the deadliest natural poisons on the planet.

“You don’t have to be fast if you’re really, really toxic,” Friesen said.

Handling the creatures is considered low risk, but students wear gloves.

“You could handle a newt and not get sick or poisoned from touching it,” Lambert said.

The St. Maarten effort isn’t the only ongoing salamander rescue effort. Since California for Michigan, volunteers guide them safely on the roads. Cars don’t mix well with salamanders.

Unanswered questions

It’s unclear whether, in a few weeks or months, there will be lines of airport-like newts waiting to clear fences on their return journeys.

If so, the students will be ready to help them.

There is also the question of whether newts will survive their encounters with frogs. Frogs may be immune to the effects of tetrodotoxin, which is produced by bacteria that live in and on newts.

Could well-meaning students just deliver take-out newts to the voracious frogs?

Friesen doesn’t know yet.

“There are so many more questions from a conservation perspective,” she said.

This story was originally published April 15, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune since 1998 as a writer, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and other Nevada and California newspapers. He graduated in journalism from San Jose State University.