Salamander studies

NMU student wins research funding

Northern Michigan University student Eli Bieri is shown holding a toad. Bieri will study other amphibians — salamanders — this spring at Presque Isle Park and by Marquette County Road 550 in Marquette Township. (Photo courtesy of Eli Bieri)

MARQUETTE — Why did the salamander cross the road?

To get to the other side, of course, but mostly to finvd water when the weather warms.

But how dangerous is it for them to cross that road? That’s what Northern Michigan University sophomore ecology major Eli Bieri wants to find out.

He recently received $500 in funding from the Chicago Herpetological Society for his research project titled “Assessing Ambystoma laterale road mortality and mitigation strategies at Presque Isle Park, Marquette, Michigan.”

For the Latin-challenged, Bieri is studying the blue-spotted salamander at the park.

In 2018, he and his friends went to Presque Isle to watch the salamander migration.

Yes, salamanders migrate.

“When the weather’s right, usually like 45 degrees or so and a little rainy, even if there’s snow on the ground, salamanders will start migrating to their breeding pools,” Bieri said. “They’ll come from the interior of the peninsula and kind of all en masse just starting moving toward the breeding ponds.”

Weather will play a part in when the salamanders make their move.

For example, he said there was still a lot of snow during the 2018 migration.

“We saw salamanders climbing over, like, 3-foot snowbanks,” Bieri said.

On Presque Isle, the breeding pools are found near MooseWood Nature Center.

Getting to those small bodies of water, though, requires traveling across Peter White Drive, which encircles the park.

“It’s really crazy,” Bieri said. “There’s thousands just crossing the street.”

What he and his friends noticed were cars being driven down the street, wiping out many unsuspecting salamanders.

That’s understandable; it’s a lot easier for a driver to see a white-tail deer crossing a road than a tiny amphibian.

So, is a “Salamander Crossing” sign needed?

“The first thing we want to find out is: Is it worth spending a lot of money on stopping that?” Bieri said.

He pointed out some studies have shown 10 percent of the salamander population is getting run over, which results in a population decline.

“We want to see how many are actually are getting hit, and then from there, what would be the best way to kind of mitigate that?” Bieri said.

He plans to tag salamanders through two methods.

One is PIT tagging, which he said involves Passive Integrated Transponders inserted under the skin, with a reader used to scan the skin.

“They last for a really long time, and you can see if a salamander’s been tagged,” Bieri said of the transponders.

The other way is VIE, which stands for Visual Implant Elastomers. This method, he said, involves the use of ultraviolet light.

“That’s basically you just taking a dye and injecting it right under the skin, and it shows up under a UV light so you can quickly just check the same thing,” Bieri said.

Again, it then can be determined if a salamander’s been tagged.

Bieri said the plan is to tag many salamanders before they cross the road and then see how are hit by cars. The ones who are struck will be checked for tags.

“That way we can get this simple proportion of salamanders that have been tagged and then those ones that get hit,” Bieri said.

He also will focus on other factors, such as whether size or gender influences if they are hit.

Bieri’s project focuses on not only Presque Isle blue-spotted salamanders but spotted salamanders — a different species — crossing Marquette County Road 550 just north of Sugarloaf Mountain in Marquette Township.

With the Presque Isle segment, talks have been ongoing with the Superior Watershed Partnership, which is located in the park, as well as the city of Marquette to possibly make a temporary road enclosure on that small road strip to cut down on salamander mortality, he said.

“They only move at night, so even if you were to close it at night, there’s no businesses or residences back there,” Bieri said.

Another successful method uses “eco passes,” sometimes called “turtle tunnels,” that Bieri said have been built underground. A fence built along the road funnels wildlife into the tunnel, which animals can use to cross a busy road safely.

For the salamander study, Bieri will work with Jill Leonard, a professor in the NMU Department of Biology, who said in an email that Bieri’s research project has the potential to be valuable because the salamanders generally are considered indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

“Though not technically endangered or threatened, they are of conservation concern, and so we worry about unnecessary or unnatural sources of mortality,” Leonard said. “The project will allow us to understand a potential source of human-related mortality for these salamanders that could be mitigated relatively easily.

“There are groups interested in helping with this mitigation, but until we understand how serious a threat this might be to the animals, there is no will to make any changes. We need some science first, and this can inform action. This is a case of people inadvertently doing something to damage wildlife that they are not even aware of, and Eli’s research gives us a chance to stop this.”

Mike Dloogatch, editor of the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society, said in an email the CHS this year received 42 proposals, of which only three were from undergraduates.

“To my way of thinking, chances are good that any undergrad who displays the initiative to apply for grant funding is serious about his or her project, and likely to carry through on it,” Dloogatch said.

Other factors influenced him.

“I felt that Eli did an excellent job of researching the published literature on related projects,” he said. “His proposal was well written, and it was quite obvious that a lot of work (and thought) went into it. His proposed budget was clear and seemed reasonable.”

A list of projects the CHS selected for funding this year and in previous years can be found at chicagoherp.org/index.php?link=grantspast.

Bieri hopes to begin his project in the spring with the results available for possible eventual publication.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.