Recovering the Frosted Flatwoods Salamander

Longleaf pine ecosystems once blanketed the Southeast, covering over ninety million acres from Texas to Virginia. Many varied species, from red-cockaded woodpeckers and quail to eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and dusky gopher frogs, evolved to live among the frequently burning, grassy, sun-soaked savannas. 

A lesser known longleaf-associated species is the federally-listed Threatened frosted flatwood salamander—a rare amphibian in the mole salamander family that spends most of its days underground. Frosted flatwoods salamanders are a deep black, with icy tendrils tracing white patterns all over their bodies. They’re little-studied, secretive creatures that were once more widespread in the Southeast. Today, they are in danger of disappearing entirely from the landscape.

Their populations have plummeted due to habitat loss—less than three percent of longleaf pine cover remains. Only a handful of populations are hanging on in Florida and two in Georgia. Even as restoration efforts for longleaf have started, they haven’t always benefited frosted flatwoods salamanders. Centuries of evolution within these annual rhythms means that the salamanders are most active in winter. They move around aboveground and start to lay eggs on vegetation in shallow depressions, betting that those depressions will fill with water (an increasingly risky bet given shifting weather patterns due to climate change).

These forests used to burn most frequently in the spring and summer. But for humans trying to restore these regimes, it’s easiest to burn in the winter when it’s less likely that the fire will spread out of control. The ephemeral wetlands, already full of water at the time of fire, don’t fully burn as they should, allowing shrubs to grow, crowd out the necessary plants, and then suck up all the water that the salamander eggs need to hatch. All of this means that land managers have accidentally killed adult salamanders by burning in winter, plus lost eggs to both fire and shrubs growing out of control. 

To recover, frosted flatwoods salamanders will need a lot of help. The other looming threat is saltwater intrusion. By 2030, saltwater is projected to enter much of their habitat in Florida. In the meantime, a single hurricane could have a devastating effect. If we are going to step in and save them, it has to be now, and we have to act fast. 

At ARC, we are working to restore wetlands by manually removing the shrubs from wetlands so that they can burn as they would have without overgrown vegetation. Shrub removal also opens up space, allowing the plants they need to come back. Additionally, we are combating the invasive plant species impacting these wetlands. Plus, we survey in the longleaf pine forests of Georgia and Florida to monitor known populations of frosted flatwoods salamanders and try to find unknown remnant populations.

That is all just the start. We are working with partners to start a comprehensive headstarting program through which we can raise larval salamanders past their most vulnerable stages and release them into the landscape to increase numbers.

We are partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners to try to reestablish the species on private land, which will be necessary to fully recover the species. Right now, they are not known on any private properties. 

Our long-term goal, which we need to reach as quickly as we can, is to complete these six steps:

  • Reinforce the remaining populations.

  • Find any remaining unknown populations.

  • Restore historic habitat.

  • Rebuild the current populations that are declining.

  • Introduce them where they once were.

  • Finally, build healthy and resilient metapopulations across their historic range. 

We can do this with your help. It will be a hard fight—the margins are razor thin for the salamanders still hanging on, but species like this—secretive, highly specialized, beautiful, and mysterious—encapsulate the incredible salamander diversity of the Southeast. And that is something we will never give up fighting to protect.