NATURAL HISTORY

FROSTED FLATWOODS SALAMANDER } Ambystoma cingulatum
RETICULATED FLATWOODS SALAMANDER } Ambystoma bishopi

FAMILY: Ambystomatidae

DESCRIPTION: Both species are moderately sized salamanders that are black to chocolate-black, with light gray lines and specks that form a cross-banded pattern across their backs. They can be differentiated by several morphological characteristics. The frosted flatwoods salamander tends to be the larger of the two species, with a larger head and limbs, and with white spots on its belly that are more discrete against a dark background. The reticulated flatwoods salamander has more of a "salt and pepper" appearance on its belly and a back pattern that is more net-like. Despite physical and genetic separation, the two flatwoods salamander species appear to have similar life-history traits and suffer from similar threats.

HABITAT: Both species occupy longleaf pine-wiregrass flatwoods and savannas in the southeastern coastal plain. These salamanders spend most of their lives underground, in crayfish burrows, root channels, or burrows of their own making. They emerge in the early winter rains to breed in small, isolated seasonal wetlands.

RANGE: The historical range of the frosted flatwoods salamander included parts of the states of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, east of the Apalachicola-Flint Rivers. While the species is still thought to occur in all three states, its range has greatly contracted. As of 2009 the frosted flatwoods salamander was known to occur in only 25 populations, with one-third of these populations supported by a single breeding site. The reticulated flatwoods salamander is restricted to the northern coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico, and its historical range included parts of southern Alabama, north Florida and Georgia, west of the Apalachicola-Flint rivers. Now the species only occurs in 20 populations in Florida (18) and Georgia (2). Reticulated flatwoods salamanders have not been seen at all in Alabama since 1981.

MIGRATION: Studies estimate that flatwoods salamanders' primary activity area around a breeding pond has a radius of 1,476 feet. However, one study documented flatwoods salamanders as far as 5,576 feet from a breeding pond.

BREEDING: Adults typically leave their burrows on rainy nights in late fall to migrate to isolated, seasonally flooded wetlands to breed. Females lay their eggs at or near the edge of the water in small depressions, beneath leaf litter, logs or shrubs.

LIFE CYCLE: Hatching is triggered when the rains inundate the pools and cover the eggs. Eggs may reach hatching size within three weeks, but hatching will not occur until the eggs are flooded with water. Larvae are nocturnal, hiding most of the day, and feeding in a water column at night.

FEEDING: Larvae feed on invertebrates, such as crustaceans, isopods and amphipods. Adults primarily eat earthworms and arthropods.

THREATS: Habitat destruction by urban and agricultural development, habitat degradation due to fire suppression and incompatible silvicultural practices, habitat fragmentation, drought, off-road vehicle use, and introduced diseases. Much of the recent declines can, at least in part be attributed to drought and incompatible fire management, with prescribed burns being conducted with improper frequency or during the wrong season for the flatwoods salamanders.

POPULATION TREND: Prior to the revised listing in 2009, the frosted flatwoods salamander is assumed to be extirpated from historically documented sites  in at least 16 counties in Georgia, four counties in Florida, and two counties in South Carolina. At that time the frosted flatwoods salamander was known to occur in 25 populations, but breeding has not been documented in at least nine of these populations in over a decade. Recent surveys confirm that the frosted flatwoods salamander is likely extinct in peninsular Florida. Even surveys conducted in the remaining stronghold of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Apalachicola National Forest, during the wet winter of 2014, indicate marked declines for this species and possible local population extinction.

Between the early 1990s and the 2009 listing, at least four reticulated flatwoods populations were lost. Seventy 20 of the 20 populations thought to be extant in 2009 have only one breeding pond and thus remain extremely vulnerable. In recent years, this species has not been found on the western portions of its stronghold of Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field in Florida, indicating that there may be local population extinction. This species has not been seen in Alabama since 1981 and is thought to be extirpated in that state. 

 

Reticulated flatwoods salamander by Jeromi Heffner/USGS