Burning wetlands produces habitat for amazing array of amphibians

Apr 14, 2023

The contents of a dipnet can turn up the results of applying regular prescribed fire to grassy wetlands.

A handful of eastern newts captured from a sinkhole wetland ecosystem.

A handful of eastern newts captured from a sinkhole wetland ecosystem.

A panoply of amphibians calls ephemeral wetlands home. Everything from leopard and spring peeper frogs to mole and Tiger salamanders and Eastern newts call these seasonally-dry marshes home.

Their presence and most importantly distribution can help researchers monitoring them to determine what practices help promote survival. It also helps identify places where populations are dwindling and mitigate that decline.

Most of it is happening on private lands.

“First, we’re finding out what’s there and that allows us to go back, whether it’s a year or five years later, and make sure those species still exist,” said Kim Sash, Tall Timbers’ Biological Monitoring Coordinator following a dipnetting session on private property in Jefferson County.

An eastern newt sits on a lily pad.

An eastern newt sits on a lily pad.

It’s that access to private lands, where landowners can craft detailed management plans and objectives, that improving wetland habitat and research meet. Having that catalogue of data also opens the door to translocation programs to place amphibious species in places where they may have been historically but have disappeared.

“If we’re going to save and conserve land, we’re going to have to start with private land,” Sash said. “It also goes to this ability to translocate. We know where population strongholds are and where good habitat is but species are not.”

Fire in wetlands and nearby uplands creates food web habitat

Fire may not be the first thing that comes to mind as a way to help water-dwelling creatures. However, the health of nearby uplands –and whether prescribed fire is implemented regularly – has an effect on the diversity of amphibious species and maintaining habitat for species like the imperiled tiger salamander.

Fire allowed to creep into dry wetlands maintains an open grassy landscape with shorelines clear of woody shrubs. That allows amphibians to move freely between water sources and keeps the water itself clean of leaf litter than increases tannins and depletes oxygen levels.

Tall Timbers’ Communications Coordinator Karl Etters holds a handful of Eastern newts captured from a sinkhole wetland in Jefferson County.

The Red Hills region is no longer dominated by longleaf pine and wiregrass communities, so the fuel types require prescribed fire be applied earlier in the year. In a natural ecosystem, longleaf and wiregrass allow effective fires well into the summer when wetlands are more likely to be dry and carry a fire.

Sash said that natural cycle can be replicated by returning to wetlands surrounded by upland areas that were burned in the first three months of year and reapplying fire during the summer dry down to promote marsh grasses.

“Quality uplands lead to quality wetlands which lead to biodiversity,” Sash said. “Grasses promote insects. So, fire starts that food web that includes frogs and salamanders.

A larval stage mole salamander is released

A larval stage mole salamander is released

About the Author
Karl Etters
A Tallahassee native, Karl has a background in journalism and an even deeper background in exploring North Florida's wild spaces. Merge the two, and he's Tall Timbers' communication coordinator. When he's not spending time with family and friends, he can be found fly fishing, hunting, biking or walking the woods looking for turkeys.
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