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Protecting Endangered Salamanders: Trent University Researchers Receive Funding for Pelee Island Study

October 2, 2015

Dr. Dennis Murray and collaborators to assess the population status and threats to one of Canada’s rarest salamanders

Thanks to a recent funding infusion from the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund (SARSF), Trent University researchers, led by Dr. Dennis Murray, will help to shed light on population size and genetics of the small-mouthed salamander, a rare, at-risk amphibian restricted exclusively to Pelee Island.

“The salamander project represents a perplexing problem in conservation biology that can best be addressed using state-of-the-art sampling and analytical methods,” asserts Dr. Thomas Hossie, a post-doctoral fellow at Trent who is spearheading the project. “Currently, we have no idea of the size of the population of small mouth salamanders on Pelee Island, and our work is the first since the late 1990s to examine whether numbers are increasing or decreasing.”

Along with Professor Murray, a Canada Research Chair in Integrative Wildlife Conservation and professor at Trent University, Dr. Hossie and the team, will put the $176,000 in funding over three years to good use, collaborating with researchers from the University of Guelph, Scales Nature Park, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, to study the status and conservation biology of the population of the small-mouthed salamander, listed as Endangered under Canada’s Species-At-Risk Act (SARA). The research aims to provide critical information about the salamander’s population size, genetic diversity, habitat needs, and threats.

Small-mouthed salamanders on Pelee Island live alongside “unisexuals,” (salamanders that possess DNA from two species), small-mouthed and blue-spotted salamanders. All unisexuals are female, making them reproductive parasites who “steal” sperm from male small-mouthed or blue-spotted salamanders. Unisexuals are difficult to distinguish from pure small-mouthed salamanders, which means that it is impossible to estimate their population size using traditional observational methods.

As part of their research, the Trent team captures salamanders and takes small genetic samples for species identification. This will help the researchers identify the species and estimate the population size of pure small-mouthed salamanders. Each salamander will receive a unique mark when it is first captured allowing the researchers to track its survival and habitat use over time.

The research funding from the SARSF supports fieldwork and personnel, including a new graduate student, Alex Myette, who will develop a genetic-based technique to noninvasively estimate population size of these salamanders.

Professor Murray suggests that this three-year project will provide critical baseline data that will contribute importantly to the basic understanding and conservation biology of this species in Canada, while also reinforcing Trent University’s leading position in wildlife conservation, aquatic sciences, and genetics and molecular biology.

The Species at Risk Stewardship Fund was created under the Endangered Species Act to encourage people to get involved in protecting and recovering species at risk through stewardship activities.