Tiny Imperiled Salamander on Brink of Extinction Bred in Captivity for First Time

An "imperiled" salamander on the brink of extinction has been bred in captivity for the first time ever.

Atlanta-based conservation organization, the Amphibian Foundation, has been working to breed the frosted flatwood salamander for nearly a decade after co-founder, Mark Mandica, realized there was an urgent need to save the species.

The frosted flatwood salamander population has declined by 90 per cent since 2000, the Amphibian Foundation said. The species was originally found in forest habitats across South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

However there are now only two known populations left in Florida and one other in Georgia. They have not been seen in South Carolina for more than 12 years. The IUCN Red List considers the frosted flatwood salamander a vulnerable species.

Frosted flatwood salamanders have disappeared mainly because of habitat loss. In the wild, they live in longleaf pine trees, which are found in the southern parts of the U.S. The range of longleaf pines have shrunk to just three percent of its original range.

There are now two breeding groups at the foundation's lab in Atlanta Mark Mandica, Executive Director/Amphibian Foundation

The salamanders decline can also be put down to irregular weather patterns, as their eggs rely on seasonal rains to hatch. In the wild, the eggs are laid in on the edge of temporarily dry pools and hatch when they fill up with rain. In recent years, when the pools have not filled, the eggs fail to hatch and the breeding season is shortened.

Mandica began working on a plan to breed the salamanders with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012. The Amphibian Foundation works from its herpetology lab in Atlanta, which houses other species such as frogs and toads.

It it takes years to rear salamander eggs in captivity. By 2017, it had established its first ever frosted flatwood breeding group. By December 2021, the foundation had 24 eggs in their lab.

Salamander eggs
The salamander eggs rely on seasonal rains to hatch, which is why they are dying out due to unpredictable weather patterns Mark Mandica, Executive Director/Amphibian Foundation

The Amphibian Foundation now has two groups of active frosted flatwoods salamanders that are producing eggs. One breeding group was brought to the foundation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife service after it was rescued from a desiccating habitat. The other group was rescued as larvae from the species' last remaining wetland in Georgia; the pond was drying up too fast for the larvae to hatch.

The foundation aims to continue breeding the salamanders in captivity, and eventually release the offspring into the wild. In a statement, Mandica said that this accomplishment is a "thrilling moment" of scientific achievement. He said the Amphibian Foundation is excited to move forward in helping the salamanders thrive in the wild.

The foundation has recreated their habitat in their lab. Mark Mandica, Executive Director/Amphibian Foundation

Daniel Sollenberger, wildlife biologist and herpetologist with the Wildlife Resources Division - Georgia, said the success was a major step forward."We are glad to have been able to support the project by providing natural vegetation for breeding enclosures, and we're eager to see the momentous successes that follow," he said in a statement.

Harold Mitchell, an ecologist U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who worked on the salamander recovery effort, said the breeding was an "incredible achievement."

"It is on the same conservation level with the captive achievements of the black-footed ferret and the California condor, which were on the verge of extinction and are now on the road to recovery," he said in a statement.