2022 Year End Review

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Red Salamander crossing a forest service road on a rainy night – Houston Chandler

This was an exciting year for The Orianne Society’s Science Initiative. We officially transitioned our old place-based programs to a new initiative structure that focuses on Science, Conservation Action, and Communication. This does not necessarily change the way that we work or the type of work that we do (we will still work in the locations that we always have), but it shifts the emphasis of the initiatives to focus on broader themes. These changes have been in the works for several years and were the primary reason that I returned to Virginia Tech to pursue a PhD. Speaking of, as 2022 comes to an end, I am finishing the third year of my PhD program and expect to graduate by next summer. The last three years have been a whirlwind, but I am excited to come back to Orianne full time as Science Director next year.

In the field with biologists from Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources – JD Kleopfer

During 2022, we continued to work on a variety of science projects aimed at informing reptile and amphibian conservation. One of the major projects that has been ongoing is an effort to create a population viability model for Eastern Indigo Snakes. A tool that currently does not exist. This year, we completed major work on this project, publishing both a range-wide habitat model and a delineation of conservation units for indigo snakes. We also worked to develop relationships between indigo snake body size and survival and fecundity, which will serve as the backbone of the population model. The second major project that we worked on is an assessment of climate change impacts on Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders. This work is similar to the indigo snake work in many ways and involves forecasting future breeding conditions under different climate change scenarios. These forecasts will then be used to evaluate extinction risk in flatwoods salamander populations. The flatwoods salamander work also involves creating a population model and to that end, I spent time counting eggs in preserved specimens. A tedious task for sure but in a few hours I was able to almost double the amount of data points that exist relating clutch size to body size in this endangered salamander. Both of these projects will be completed sometime next year, providing important tools that stakeholders can use to inform the management of these two imperiled species.

An indigo snake retreating into a tortoise burrow – Houston Chandler

In addition to the above projects, we also continued on with some of our long-term monitoring projects. This includes occupancy monitoring for indigo snakes in southern Georgia and population monitoring of Spotted Turtles. At the beginning of 2022, we finished our 12th consecutive season monitoring indigo snake occupancy in Georgia and have just started surveys for the 13th season. Overall, this monitoring program has been highly successful, indicating that indigo snake occupancy has been relatively stable through time. Spotted Turtles have rapidly become one of my favorite species that we get to work with. We have completed a variety of projects with Spotted Turtles over the years and continue to conduct annual mark-recapture surveys at two populations in Georgia. Even after almost 10 years, we still find new turtles! During 2022, we also published assessments of reproductive output in these same populations that were made over multiple years. Spotted Turtles have turned into one of our main focal species, and with the knowledge gaps that exist in the southeast (check out the Spotted Turtle conservation plan), I expect our work with them to continue for many years.

The final project that I will mention here is a new effort to help inform the upcoming Species Status Assessment and listing decision for Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes. This Fish and Wildlife funded project has several goals, including compiling a database of EDB observations (please contribute if you have observed EDBs anywhere in the southeast), conducting surveys for EDBs on properties without records, marking EDBs on The Longleaf Stewardship Center, and creating a habitat model similar to the one that we made for indigo snakes. We recently started the fieldwork for this project, which will continue into next year.

An EDB observed on a summer snake survey – Houston Chandler

In addition to these research projects, there are a few other 2022 happenings worth noting from Orianne’s Science Initiative. First, I attended both the Southeastern Partners for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and the Joint Aquatic Sciences meetings, sharing the results from some of our research projects. Dr. Javan Bauder also presented results from our indigo snake work at The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting. These meetings provide a great opportunity to share research with a diverse group of other scientists and managers. Second, we were able to award small grants to graduate students pursuing research on reptile and amphibians in the southeast. Funding can often be difficult for graduate students to find, especially on a short time scale, and a small amount of money can make a big difference in project success. Check out some of the great work that last year’s recipients conducted. We will soon be awarding grants from this year’s call and plan to continue this program into the future.

Talking about flatwoods salamander conservation at the Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting – Kyle McLean

As I look to the future, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the direction of the Science Initiative. In 2023, several of the large projects that we have been working on for several years will begin to wind down, and it will be exciting to see the goals of all that hard work realized. There are also several new projects in the works, ranging from continuing our work with flatwoods salamanders and ephemeral wetlands to evaluating the utility of using eDNA to survey for indigo snakes. Overall, I am looking forward to moving back to working with Orianne fulltime in 2023. Reptiles and amphibians face many conservation challenges in a rapidly changing world that are often exacerbated by a lack of information. My goal is to continue learning about these fascinating species in a way that provides tangible benefits to their long-term conservation and management.

The author with a Spotted Salamander on its way to a breeding wetland – Maddie Betts