Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

October 20, 2003

Prof working to preserve 'indicator' amphibian

The Jefferson salamander, a threatened species known for its slippery skin and extremely long toes, is providing researchers, including a University of Guelph professor, with important clues about the state of Ontario’s ecosystems. In fact, it may even help identify species that could be next on the endangered list.

Zoology professor James Bogart says the Jefferson salamander is an “indicator” species. Their conditions or quality of life mirror the conditions of other species or the environment at large. Its presence signifies that the environment is suitable for a large number of organisms that require an uncontaminated, undisturbed mixed forest region, he said.

But something is killing the North American amphibian in certain regions, placing it on the threatened species list of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Because it’s an indicator species, whatever is harming the Jefferson is probably killing off other animals too, Bogart said. “The Jefferson can serve as a warning for environmental health. Learning how to preserve it can help us preserve many other plants and animals that live in similar environments.”

Bogart is a member of the federal Jefferson Salamander Recovery Team, which involves the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. He has been pinpointing locations where Jefferson populations have been found for the past two decades as part of a preservation effort.

Normally, it’s easy to track salamanders because they’re long-lived and can be monitored throughout their lifetime. But the Jefferson is different, Bogart said. It always lives with polyploid females – females with more than two sets of chromosomes that are a “hybrid” of the "pure" species, Ambystoma jeffrsonianum. It’s difficult to distinguish the pure species from the hybrid, so genetic analysis is necessary for proper identification, he said.

Learning which ponds the salamanders use for reproduction will make it easier to identify areas that need to be preserved, he added. Salamanders move from their “home” pond to underground areas after a very short breeding season, which means it may be necessary to preserve land up to one kilometre in radius from their breeding ponds.

Bogart is making maps of the Jefferson’s habitats – including areas across southern Ontario such as the Niagara Escarpment, Haldimand-Norfolk County and small areas in York Region – and hopes they will be available by 2005. He is also completing a lengthy investigation of the salamander throughout its natural range from New England through Indiana and from Ontario to Kentucky.

“The goal is to know exactly where these salamanders are living,” he said. “Then we can justify legislation to protect these areas.”

His research is being sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Endangered Species Recovery Fund of World Wildlife Fund Canada.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rachelle Cooper, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982.

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