APALACHICOLA NATIONAL FOREST, Fla. (AP) - Not far from a Tallahassee Publix, a big, bold effort is quietly underway to try to save a small, secretive creature.
For millennia, the western striped newt skittered in and out of isolated wetlands dotting the sandy, longleaf pine forest here, continually transforming over its lifespan from egg, to gilled water dweller, to air-breathing land walker, back to the water to breed, then to land again. The Munson Sandhills was its stronghold.
No more. After years of decline, by 2007, the creature was gone, its local extinction likely caused by a combination of factors, including drought, disease, a lack of forest-healthy fire and loss of habitat. Today, the western striped newt, indigenous only to north Florida and south Georgia, can reliably be found in just one small wetland in the Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area in Butler, Ga.
But if husband and wife conservation biologists Ryan and Rebecca Means and their team have it their way -- and things are looking promising -- the striped newt may again call the Apalachicola National Forest home.
"This year, I'm going home every day and saying, 'Damn honey, we are being successful!'" Ryan Means said out in the field last week with Rebecca and their ever-present 5-year-old daughter and fledgling researcher, Skyla. "We really do have great news and something to cheer about."
In 2010, the Meanses' Coastal Plains Institute worked with Chuck Hess, a now-retired Apalachicola National Forest biologist, to initiate a five-year, $215,000 cost-share agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to try to bring the striped newt back to the forest. The effort is unique.
"No one has ever done this before," Ryan Means said, "at least with this group of salamander in this part of North America."
Institute president Bruce Means, a well-known herpetologist and Ryan's father, has been studying the striped newts in the region for decades. Along with the mysterious demise of that species, he also recorded the disappearance of the Southern Dusky Salamander from the Florida Panhandle in habitats that are pristine even today.
"Ryan's attempt to repatriate the species in the Munson Sandhills is one of the very few attempts to recover any declining or extirpated species," Bruce Means said. "I think his work is much like the attempted recovery of the California Condor."
The first two years of the project, the researchers investigated the cause of the striped newt decline. While they found evidence of the potentially deadly pathogen ranavirus, a kind of "frog flu," which is capable of turning infected amphibians to mush, at some of the wetlands in the forest, levels were normal and well below outbreak status. The team deemed conditions favorable enough to put the newts back in the wild.
The Meanses traveled to the wetland in Georgia, collected genetically similar specimens, and sent them to the Memphis Zoo and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens where they were bred in captivity.
"There was a lot of trial and a lot of error," said Mark Beshel, senior herpetologist keeper at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. "Getting food to them and keeping them from eating each other are the two important things."
The Meanses selected as reintroduction sites four of about 20 ephemeral wetlands -- ponds that are established, but periodically dry up -- where the newts once thrived in the Munson Sandhills area. They lined three of the wetlands with fish-grade, synthetic rubber to keep them wetter longer. All four were ringed with an aluminum-flashing drift fence and collection buckets to monitor creatures coming and going from the moist, fish-free oases, which support a biological bonanza of species.
In May 2013, the couple introduced into one of the ponds 58 striped newt larvae, each about 2 inches long, with bushy gills, a swishing tail and four small limbs. A couple of months later, they counted just three coming out as roughly 3-inch-long land dwellers, called "efts," to live their solitary lives among the ground cover of the nearby upland forest floor. To reproduce, the efts need to return to the pond, often during a hard, winter rain, where they transform into an aquatic adults to mate and lay their eggs before returning to land once more.
This spring, the Meanses tried again. This time, thanks to the breeding success of their partner zoos, they had 433 newt larvae, which they divided among the four ponds. At the end of monitoring last week, 33 terrestrial newts had been counted leaving the wetlands - nearly 20 from one in which about 100 were placed. The numbers are a conservative estimate, the Meanses said, because heavy spring rains submerged their drift fences and likely allowed newts to leave uncounted.
"This is the climactic moment of the study so far," Ryan Means said. "At one wetland, at least 20 percent of the newts we put in are emerging out into the uplands this year. It's no stretch to imagine that the other three wetlands would have similar numbers even though we could not precisely measure their numbers due to spring flooding. A 20 percent return on investment is highly successful in the amphibian world."
Amphibians are in decline worldwide. Biologists point to a confluence of factors, such as habitat loss and fragmentation as well as global climate change, which has affected breeding patterns and allowed diseases to flourish.
"Extinction is a natural process over the course of time," Ryan Means said, "but humans are precipitating a lot larger rate of extinction than naturally goes on in the background of geological time."
Consequently, Means and other scientists say, humans have an obligation to try to save imperiled creatures -- even the humble western striped newt.
"It's not a panda, it's no Bengal tiger, but it is an important component of the longleaf pine forest of the Southeast," said Steve Johnson, a University of Florida assistant professor of wildlife ecology and conservation working with the Meanses on the project. "As stewards of our earth we are bound to help. It's a cool little critter, and it's worth saving."
The biodiversity value of the striped newt is not fully understood. Johnson likened its loss to pulling a thread from a carpet -- pull out enough of them, the carpet unravels. The extinction of the striped newt could have far-reaching consequences to its native ecosystem as a whole.
"It's something that could affect many other species that people might think are important," said Rebecca Means, who heads up an educational component of the project that provides hands-on learning for school-aged children. "The fact that they are going extinct means something is going on here. They don't just up and decide to move away."
Kim Sash, a herpetology expert and conservation biologist at Tall Timbers Research Station, said the plight of the striped newt in the Apalachicola National Forest and elsewhere in the Red Hills raises bigger issues than the species' survival.
"It's about water, it's about habitat, it's about disease, and it's about maintaining functional ecosystems," Sash said. "Scientists refer to amphibians as environmental indicators; because of their permeable skin they are often the first animals to decline when something is awry with the environment. How long do we ignore the demise of indicator species before we start making changes to our behavior?"
Beshel, who cuts up tiny worms and grows countless brine shrimp in his zoo lab to feed to his carnivorous brood, conceded a lot of people don't even know what a newt is. But he offered three simple reasons why they should care.
"They are a native species to Florida, they need our help and, you know what their favorite food is?" he asked. "Mosquitoes."
Working to see the western striped newt live again outside the Noah's Ark of zoos has been a labor of love for the entire team.
"It requires a lot of sweat equity, time and devotion," Johnson said.
For the Meanses, who monitor the project wetlands every day for months on end, the work is all-consuming. And it is only expected to become more so next year with more zoos on tap to join the captive breeding effort.
"I want to put thousands of larvae out here next year, not just 433," Ryan Means said.
Time and money, however, are running out. It likely will be another two or three years before victory can be declared, and the project is only funded through next summer.
"The success of the project will be known in the future when -- and if -- breeding populations in Munson Sandhills ponds become established and maintained on their own without continuous repatriation," Bruce Means said. "This could be as soon as next winter, or in subsequent winters since we don't really know how long the land stage stays in the uplands until it returns to breed. Individuals have been kept in captivity for at least 15 years!"
The season for emerging striped newts is over for this year. Ryan and Rebecca Means, who also run Remote Footprints, a nonprofit dedicated to educating families about biodiversity and unspoiled natural places, are set to head west with Skyla to document remote spots of seven states in seven weeks. When they return, they'll resume preparations for next year's larvae and efforts to find financial support to keep the project going.
"The newts have a place in the biological universe out here. You take them out of here, it's going to change and shift in ways we can't even talk about," Ryan Means said. "We are having great success. I don't want to walk away without the job done."
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