Tuesday, December 17, 2019

New book examines amphibian conservation in Rhode Island

            A new book about the 18 species of amphibians that live in Rhode Island is shedding light on the conservation needs of frogs, toads and salamanders in the region. Proceeds from the book will help to fund local protection efforts on their behalf.
            Chris Raithel, a retired endangered species biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, has had a lifelong interest in amphibians, but it wasn’t until he had been monitoring the animals for several years that he came up with the idea for the book, Amphibians of Rhode Island.
            “A lot of the species were very poorly documented, like four-toed salamanders, and
nobody had seen them for a long time,” he said. “So when I started looking for them and started to
Bullfrog (Todd McLeish)
accumulate a bunch of survey information, one thing led to another and I ended up writing a manuscript.”
            Raithel, who retired in 2018 and received the Rhode Island Distinguished Naturalist Award from the Rhode Island Natural History Survey last spring, describes his 316-page book as a conservation guide. It includes detailed accounts of each species, sections about the threats they face and their need for conservation, and numerous photos and graphics.
            “Most important is that I put all that information into a conservation context – here’s what we have, where they are, what’s happening to them, and what can be done about it,” he said.
            Although some parts may be somewhat technical, he said the book is “very user-friendly and readable. School kids can pick it up and be jazzed by the photos, it could be used as a college coursebook, and there’s plenty of parts that apply to a wide readership.”
            Many amphibian species in Rhode Island are facing serious threats to their populations, and he highlights these conservation challenges in the book.
            “It’s the same old thing for a lot of wildlife – habitat loss and fragmentation,” he said. “Some amphibians migrate long distances, they’re vulnerable at many life history stages, there are issues of hydrology and habitat alteration and road mortality, then throw on disease and a couple of other things. They can’t fly away from this stuff, they don’t disperse well, and there’s a whole gamut of things that influences them.
            “The bottom line is that when they get a lot of habitat fragmentation, their habitat patches get smaller, and many of them don’t persist in small areas like that,” he added. “Some species are really tolerant of habitat fragmentation; I’m not worried about bullfrogs because they’ll live in cities. But those that need large areas and have to move around between different sites, those are the ones with conservation concerns.”
            While most people interested in wildlife are probably familiar with the region’s most common species, like bullfrogs, green frogs, American toads and red-backed salamanders, the book also features the more obscure species that are seldom seen in the Ocean State.
            Spring salamanders, for instance. According to Raithel, spring salamanders are extremely rare and very difficult to observe. They were discovered in the state only about 30 years ago and are now known from only a handful of sites in northwestern Rhode Island.
            “It had been speculated that they were here, but nobody had seen one until another biologist found one,” Raithel said. “They’re permanently aquatic, and in some cases they live down under the substrate in the groundwater. We caught one of them deep in a well.”
            His favorite of the obscure amphibian species in the state is the eastern spadefoot toad, which hadn’t been reported in Rhode Island for about 40 years until Raithel started searching for them.
            “I knew they had to be out there, and eventually I found them in a few places, and then I branched out and found them in Connecticut where they had never been known to occur. Now they’re a conservation issue, as they should be,” he said. “They’re fun to look for because it’s like storm chasing; you have to go out in thunderstorms to find them.”
            Raithel is now working on a similar book focusing on the 20 species of reptiles in the state, which he expects to be completed in a couple years.
            Funding for Amphibians of Rhode Island was provided by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the State Wildlife Grants Program. It can be purchased by sending a check for $20 to the DEM Great Swamp Field Headquarters, 277 Great Neck Road, West Kingston, R.I. 02892. It can also be purchased in person at the same location, or at the DEM Division of Boating and Licensing, 235 Promenade Street, Providence.

This story first appeared in EcoRI.org on Dec. 12, 2019.

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