Searching for salamanders

🕔Apr 07, 2011

Leaning over a wet, rotten log, Dr. Govindarajulu carefully lifts back the wood, exposing a small animal with a bright orange belly. “Roughskin newt!” Within a half hour our group has found three species of salamanders along the trail to Lakelse Lake near Terrace.
Decked out in raingear and walking sticks, we are a motley crew, joined together for a single purpose. Our guide, Dr. Purnima Govindarajulu, Ministry of Environment amphibian specialist from Victoria, is on a mission. She has come with an important task—to raise public awareness of amphibians and their habitats.

By travelling through northern BC and talking to a wide range of people, she hopes to find a cohort of citizen volunteers willing to talk to the public about the value of amphibians. She is also looking for enthusiastic people to participate in a monitoring program for frogs, toads, salamanders and newts over the next five years. Our group, a mixture of naturalists and students, has come to listen and learn.

As she carefully shows us each salamander species, Dr. Govindarajulu expresses concerns about the future of amphibians. An ancient group of vertebrates, dating back at least 340 million years, amphibians are dying out globally. Caught between habitat losses and exotic fungal diseases, frogs and toads are disappearing. Almost one third of the 5,750 known amphibian species worldwide are at risk. Within BC, the situation isn’t any better. 30 percent of salamanders and an astounding 64 percent of frog and toad species are listed by federal and provincial agencies as being species of concern.

Even common amphibians, such as the Western Toad, are undergoing sharp population declines, especially in southern parts of the province. Northern BC may represent some of the last healthy amphibian populations in an otherwise gloomy picture of global species extinctions.

This is why Dr. Govindarajulu’s monitoring project is very important. Utilizing volunteers from local naturalist societies and the general public, she wants to gather information about amphibian species occurring in the Skeena, Nass, Stikine and Bulkley Valleys. Working with BCFrogwatch, volunteers will record important data such as the timing of frog calls during spring, location of egg clusters in ponds, and mass movements of toadlets from pools and puddles. Information gathered through volunteers will be used by experts to track population trends for the three species of salamanders and four species of frogs and toads found naturally in northwestern BC.

Quacking frogs
One method that the volunteers will use to find amphibians will be salamander boards. As salamanders are secretive species that often live in rotted-wood environments, this habitat can be imitated by boards under which the salamanders will hopefully creep. The Foundation Level Carpentry class at Northwest Community College in Terrace, taught by Joe Missere, has donated its time to construct these specialized board sets. Due to the sensitivity of amphibian skin, the wood must be untreated, and nails, which can leach metals, must not be used. Each board set has a thick base of hemlock, with two thinner boards on top, held apart by laths to create natural gaps. Volunteers will place these into wetland areas on their properties, and check once a month which species are found under or between the boards. One hundred sets have been constructed, waiting for volunteers to put them out this spring.

The proposed monitoring program will not just be a collection of numbers. For those who are fascinated by mysteries from the wild world, the program may answer some points of puzzlement about amphibians, such as the song of the wood frog. Wood frogs in BC’s interior near Prince George form breeding choruses in spring, with the males quacking loudly like ducks. No-one on record in Terrace, the western extent of wood frog range, has ever heard wood frogs ‘singing.’ Somewhere between the northern capital and the wet North Coast, wood frogs have stopped quacking. Through the monitoring program, we may be able to determine the boundary between song-singing and silent wood frogs, and—more importantly—the critical breeding locations required for their spring activities.

The program will be extensive. Volunteers are proposed to extend from Dease Lake in the North to the West Coast and Interior through the Bulkley Valley. In some cases, such as the Stikine Valley, only a limited number of species have ever been recorded and the monitoring program may identify frogs and salamanders in places where they’ve never been seen before. Similarly, only toads are native to Haida Gwaii but the two species of frogs occurring on the islands have been introduced since the arrival of Europeans. Salamanders have never been recorded for the islands, and this program may generate the first sightings. Through the efforts of volunteer monitors, a clearer picture will unfold as to which species are where within BC’s northwest.

Climate change indicators
Looming over the monitoring program, though, will be climate change. Amphibians are the proverbial “canary in the coalmine” when it comes to climate, since they are very sensitive to changes in the temperature of their habitat. The monitoring program, intended to last for decades, may allow us to see how the biological world responds to shifts in temperature and moisture levels across the north of our province. The Skeena, Stikine, and Bulkley Valleys are ideal locations to detect impacts of climate change as they are currently at the farthest limits of environmental conditions that amphibians can tolerate. Within the region, some species have reached their eastern-most distribution limits (roughskin newt), northern limits (northwestern salamander) or western limits (wood frog). Other species, such as the common Enstina salamander, occur on the mid-coast but have not yet been found in the Skeena watershed. Any long-term changes in climate could lead to adjustments in where these species occur.

In an important collaboration between government and public volunteers, the amphibian monitoring program will provide critical information essential to the management and survival of amphibian species in northwestern BC. If you are interested in participating as a volunteer in this project, please contact Dr. Norma Kerby at For further information about BC amphibians and updates on the monitoring program, you can check the BCFrogwatch website at

Amphibians of Northwestern B.C.

Toads and Frogs

Western Toad 
_Anaxyrus (Bufo) boreas_
The warts on a toad are poison glands. If your dog picks up a toad in its mouth, a spectacular amount of foam will drool from its mouth in reaction.

Pacific Tailed Frog 
Ascaphus truei
.In addition to the ‘tail’ used for breeding by the males, these frogs have vertical pupils, no eardrums, a tongue attached to the back of the mouth, and an hour-glass waist that starts just above their legs.

Wood Frog 
_Lithobates sylvaticus_
Wood frogs are found the farthest north of any amphibian in Canada. The loud quacks of breeding males in spring can be confusing for early-season birdwatchers.

Columbia Spotted Frog 
_Rana luteiventris_
The common lake frog of northern BC, spotted frogs are up to 10 cm long. They are dependent on deeper water for breeding and over-wintering.

Northern Red-legged Frog 
_Rana aurora_ 
- introduced on Haida Gwaii
Males sing in the spring, but, as they call under-water, their songs are seldom heard by humans.

Pacific Chorus Frog 
_Pseudacris regilla_ -introduced on Haida Gwaii – Probably introduced to Haida Gwaii from Vancouver Island as tadpoles. The effect of these agile, small tree frogs on the Islands’ insect populations is yet to be determined.

Salamanders and Newts

Roughskin Newt Taricha granulosa
Roughskin newts are effective predators of slugs, earthworms, and insect larvae. Garden areas can be landscaped to encourage them to live there and help control pests.

Northwestern (Brown) Salamander Ambystoma gracile
Found only in the coastal zone of the North Coast, the Northwestern Salamander can be up to 25 cm long including tail.

Long-toed Salamander 
_Ambystoma macrodactylum_
This salamander, found throughout northern BC, is the one most likely to be found in your backyard woodpile or under boards or garden plastic.

Common Ensatina Ensatina eschscholtzii
This salamander has only been found in the Kitlope Conservancy southeast of Kitimat. If a predator attacks, it releases its tail, complete with poison glands, and scurries away to safety.