BLISS

Bat Lake Inventory of Spotted Salamanders = BLISS

It all started with a small lake in Algonquin Park – Bat Lake. Bat Lake is a small lake in Algonquin Park, located just north of Highway 60. This lake is an unusual lake in that it is highly acidic (pH 4.3), fishless, rain/snow melt fed but permanent. This creates a unique combination for amphibians, since the lack of fish opens up opportunities for larval amphibians to survive and reproduce in abundance: nearly all of Algonquin Park’s amphibians breed in it every year, making it a microcosm of the amphibians. Here is a picture of Bat Lake:

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To call it a Lake is actually a bit of a misnomer. Technically, it is a spruce bog, whose chemistry and biology has likely remained reasonably static since it formed following the retreat of the most recent glaciers ~10,000 years ago. Core sample data going back for the past 200 years suggests it has been fishless for at least that long, indicating that the acidity is not due to industrialization but is due to the unique features of the bog and the underlying bedrock which bestows very little buffering capacity to the water. Of the amphibians that breed in Bat Lake, the one this ‘lake’ is best known for is the Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. Every spring, thousands of salamanders embark on a migration (probably ~1-2 km) to this breeding site.

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Since 2003 (and even back to 1993 when I was a student) through summer student projects, my lab has been collecting data on the dates of first egg laying by the yellow spotted salamanders, and the results are striking.  The earliest lay date has advanced by ~0.7 days per year for the past decade.  Combined with data from the early 1990s, it is readily evident that the earliest lay date of salamanders has been steadily, and more recently, rapidly advancing to earlier in the season.  Local weather conditions, as well as climate change seem likely explanations for the underlying changes in the breeding phenology of Bat Lake salamanders, however, we have little information on population size, operational sex ratios, and arrival and departure dates of salamanders to allow us to fully understand the proximate causes leading to these observed lay dates.

The questions we have been asking include:

Will salamanders spend more or less time in courtship if spring temperatures warm?  Is an altered arrival time the explanation for changes in lay dates?  Is breeding recruitment affected by warming spring temperatures?

At present we are also generating hypotheses for future monitoring efforts.  By establishing long-term data records of the arrival times, operational breeding population, sex ratios and local geographic dynamics occurring at Bat Lake, we hope to track the potential changes that climate change is having on an important amphibian of Algonquin Park and allow for informed conservation decisions regarding the management of similar watersheds.

History of the Bat Lake Inventory of Spotted Salamanders. (BLISS)

The salamanders of Bat Lake have long been of interest to people familiar with Algonquin Park.

Pre 1990s – Numerous Algonquin Park Naturalists have helped to highlight the unique ecosystem at Bat Lake. It only takes a brief read of the Bat Lake Trail Guide to see the importance of salamanders to the surrounding ecosystem, where they are estimated to make up a large portion of the animal biomass.

1993 – I was first introduced to Bat Lake as an undergraduate student conducting a research project in the lab of Dr. Jim Bogart at the University of Guelph. I was not the best of research assistants and not much came of my work that summer (I am grateful to Jim for for his patience), but this little lake had a large influence on my thinking as a biologist.

1994 – 2006: Through the initiatives of Ron Brooks and the MNR, Bat Lake was included among other lakes in Algonquin Park for egg mass counts.

2004 – 2007: My lab began a series of studies on the symbiosis between the embryonic salamander and a algae that grows within the egg capsule.

2008: My lab started formal Spotted Salamander monitoring at Bat Lake, referring to the project as BLISS (I spent 6 months coming up with an acronym!). Aptly named, it turns out, since the students who tend to gravitate toward the project find working at Bat Lake a blissful experience! At least if they like working with herps.

2008 – 2012: The initial years of BLISS have worked out the ‘bugs’ of starting a field project in a remote part of Ontario far from where we all live. Various students have taken part over the years, including David LeGros, Patrick Moldowan, and Sean Boyle, all of whom I am proud to note have gone onto bigger and better things. Let’s hope they become the next generation’s biologists!

Present day: BLISS is currently co-managed by Algonquin Park Biologist, Jennifer Hoare, operationally run by Patrick Moldowan, with data deposited and analyzed by me (Glenn Tattersall). I feel sad that I am not more involved, but I have yet to manage to clone myself to allow me to get into the field in the springtime. Back in my lab at Brock, May is usually one of the busiest times of year as new students are starting research projects, and conference season is in full swing. Maybe one year I will actually get to experience the BLISS that is working in the field catching salamanders.

Into the future: The plan is for BLISS to remain a cooperative venture between the Ministry of Natural Resources/Ontario Parks, Universities, passionate biologists, and supported by volunteers! Check out this blog from Ontario parks showing their support for our project, as well as a creative writing impression (written by Patrick Moldowan) of what it is like to be a herpetologist anticipating the most exciting time of year: Spring!!

I hope to begin to write up some interesting results from BLISS in the next year or two, and will be happy to discuss questions with interested colleagues. So far, we are obtaining informative trends and associations between egg mass abundance and adult body size and changes in previous year’s climate. The trick with a long-term dataset is how long to wait before publishing the results!

Of course, BLISS would not be possible without the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station and all the researchers who have made this place what it is. Check out their website for more information, but in short, this research station is primarily operated by dedicated university researchers who pursue research into Wildlife in the boreal forests of Ontario. Many Ontario university undergraduates have sunk their teeth into research at this station and fallen in love with science and the outdoors. Since federal funding for basic sciences is under threat, all field stations need support from the public, so please consider donating.

Happy Spring Everyone!

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Sources:

Bianchini, K, Tattersall, GJ, Sashaw, J, Porteus, CS, Wright, PA. 2012. Acid water interferes with salamander-green algae symbiosis during early embryonic development. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 85: 480-490.

Tattersall, GJ and Spiegelaar, N. 2008. Embryonic motility and hatching success of Ambystoma maculatum are influenced by a symbiotic alga. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 86: 1289-1298.

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