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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI grad student uses telemetry to track salamander migration

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 25, 2004 -- Salamander research at the University of Rhode Island has gone high-tech.

URI graduate student Christin McDonough-Haughey has implanted 80 spotted salamanders with transmitters so she can use radio telemetry to monitor their movements from their spring breeding pools to their winter hibernation sites and everywhere they go in between. Her objective is to evaluate the impact that habitat fragmentation is having on the migration behavior of the 6-inch long amphibians.

"There's a great deal known about salamanders' use of vernal pools during the breeding season, but little is known about what the animals are doing during the rest of the year," said the 28-year old Newport resident.

McDonough-Haughey aims to discover the distance the salamanders travel from their breeding pools, their preferred upland habitat, and their willingness to cross developed areas.

Using the unopened Lake of Isles golf course on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian reservation in Connecticut as an example of a fragmented habitat, she and two field assistants locate each of her 80 subjects at least once every four days. So far the farthest distance any of her subjects has traveled is 290 meters from their breeding pool, and most have gone less than 150 meters away.

Spotted salamanders live from eight to 12 years and spend most of the non-breeding season in underground tunnels excavated by small mammals like mice and moles. "I'm especially curious to see what kind of mammal holes they prefer, and how important those holes are to them," McDonough-Haughey said.

One challenge that the URI student has already faced is predation on her research subjects. She found one partially eaten by what she believes was a raccoon or skunk. The radio transmitter originally implanted in another salamander was traced to the belly of a healthy garter snake, which apparently ate the salamander, transmitter and all.

Despite her losses, McDonough-Haughey is already finding answers to her questions, though those answers are posing additional questions. For instance, she found that several salamanders left the protection of the forest and proceeded across the golf course fairway.

"That was a good sign suggesting that they won't be stopped by this kind of development," she said. "But maybe they were taking this route long before the golf course was even built. I'm not sure if new generations of salamanders will cross the fairways or if they'll consider it a barrier to their migration. I can't generalize from adult behavior to what the juveniles will do."

Funded by the U.S. Golf Association and the Mashantucket Pequot Indians, McDonough-Haughey said that the batteries in the implanted radio transmitters will die in August, at which point she will re-implant transmitters in 25 salamanders and continue to track them through the fall and winter.

"They're much less active in the colder months, but that's also the time when the least is known about them," she said.