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CPI's Wildlife and Ecology Research Projects

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake
Flatwoods salamander
Longleaf pine forest with wiregrass groundcover
Efts of the striped newt and common newt
Wildlife and Ecology Research Projects
  • Research on salamanders: systematics, ecology, and management.
    The southeastern U. S. is the worldwide center of familial diversity and probable geographical region where salamanders evolved. Florida, having 27 species, is abundantly endowed with salamanders and yet they still are poorly studied. Little life history and other ecological information is available about them, but they are very sensitive ecological indicators and should be thoroughly studied and monitored. An indication of the poor state of knowledge about this important group of animals is the fact that there are at least five additional species of salamanders in Florida that have not been formally recognized and are new to science. One of CPI's most important research projects is to rectify the problem of lack of knowledge about these very important animals. Following is some of the progress we have made and are underway with in this regard:
    • Amphiuma pholeter. Several research papers have been published on this species' biology and a first-draft manuscript has been completed on its life history, ecology, and food habits.
    • Notophthalmus perstriatus. A ten-year drift fence study on the life history, ecology, and distribution of this rare and declining species was funded by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Forest Service, and Florida Department of Transporation. A large monograph on this project is in preparation, to include five years of data on larval phenology of the Striped Newt in temporary ponds, and hydrological analysis of some 26 ponds in which the Striped Newt and Gopher Frog breed. Altogether, some 30 species of amphibians and reptiles utilize ponds in the Munson Sandhills where the study has been underway. An alarming decline of the use of Munson Sandhills ponds by the Striped Newt has been documented. Possible causes of the decline and suggestions for management of the sandhills will be discussed.
    • Ambystoma cingulatum. CPI has published several important papers on the biology of this species. Based upon our work and that of others, the flatwood salamander in 1999 was listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species. We plan a drift fence study of the immigration, emigration, and larval ecology and phenology in selected temporary ponds on the Apalachicola National Forest. In addition, we plan to study the use of longleaf pine terrestrial habitat by the metamorphs and adults, and the population response of the species to prescribed burning at different seasons.
    • Desmognathus auriculatus. Vital research on this species' biology and conservation has been completed and several important research papers and manuscripts have been generated, including the SSAR Catalogue Account and "Contributions on the ecology of the Southern Dusky Salamander, Desmognathus auriuclatus (Holbrook) in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama." In 1998 field work supported by a grant from Eglin Air Force Base lead to the discovery that the southern dusky salamander appears to have declined dramatically since the mid-1970s and has been extirpated from many parts of its original geographic range (Virginia to east Texas). This is the first amphibian in the eastern U.S. for which a range-wide, unexplained decline has been documented and the first salamander to merit declining amphibian status similar to that of many frogs. An important research paper about this is scheduled to be published in the March issue of Southeastern Naturalist, entitled "Declines in ravine-inhabiting dusky salamanders of the southeastern U. S. Coastal Plain." Research is continuing on this problem.
    • Desmognathus. Although CPI has published many research papers on this genus in Florida and adjacent states, there still is some work to do to thoroughly understand the systematic relationships of this genus in Florida. Having described the new species, Desmognathus apalachicolae, in 1989, apparently there is at least one other undescribed species still in the Florida panhandle. Biochemical and morphological research and field work are underway to clarify the status of this genus.
    • Eurycea quadridigitata complex. Field work by CPI biologists in the past two years has revealed that there are three species masquerading under the same name in Florida. FSU graduate student Kenny Wray is working with Bruce Means and other members of his Ph. D. committee to elucidate the phylogenetic relationships of this large complex of populations from east Texas to North Carolina.  Kenny is using the techniques of DNA analysis of these populations to acquire evolutionary insights.
    • A comprehensive technical monograph on the "Salamanders of Florida" or "Salamanders of the southeastern U. S. Coastal Plain" is sorely needed. Over the years since 1968, B. Means has amassed a tremendous amount of information on the biology of Coastal Plain salamanders, including an alcohol preserved collection of about 20,000 specimens. This is a major project that CPI would like to seek funding for and complete in the next five years.
  • Effects of fire on amphibians and reptiles.
    • In 1982 Means and Campbell published the only review entitled, "Effects of prescribed burning on amphibians and reptiles." This paper was buried in an obscure symposium (Prescribed fire and wildlife in Southern forests of the Belle W. Baruch Forest Science Institute, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina) and should be updated with 16 years of new data and published in a more visible outlet. A worldwide literature search through 1994 has been completed, and further review and a publication is planned for the near future.
  • Vertebrate Food Web Relationships of Southeastern US Large Snakes.
    A major research goal of the Coastal Plains Institute is to study the ecology of all the large snakes of the longleaf pine ecosystem and determine their importance in the larger food web of the all the vertebrates. The nine species of snakes are the gray rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta), red rat snake (E. guttata), coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), black racer (Coluber constrictor), pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), indigo snake (Drymarchon corais), eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus), eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), and cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). Unfortunately, the indigo snake has been largely extirpated from panhandle Florida. Snakes may have a much greater role in the population dynamics of other vertebrates (such as ground nesting birds and small mammals, for instance) than wildlife biologists realize. With densities of up to several of these predators per acre in many cases, these large snakes have been unassessed in their potential positive and negative impacts. Snakes take rats that feed upon the eggs of ground-nesting birds, for instance, but on the other hand kingsnakes and ratsnakes feed upon eggs, themselves, and upon birds. Moreover, kingsnakes and indigo snakes feed upon snakes that feed upon other vertebrates. What sorts of ecological responses have taken place following the extirpation of the indigo snake, how do snakes affect ground-nesting birds, and dozens more questions are the focus of our studies. Some of our progress follows:
    • Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
      • A long-term study of the world's largest rattlesnake was undertaken in 1976 on Tall Timbers Research Station in northern Leon County, Florida. Research on this species has been supported by the Coastal Plains Institute since 1984. Presently a flatwoods population is under radiotelemetry study near our Sumatra property in Liberty County, Florida, and it is planned to inaugurate a study on a population inhabiting a mature beech/magnolia forest.
      • The write-up of a 20-year study of the life history and ecology is close to being completed as a book-length monograph to be entitled "Diamonds in the rough: natural history of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake." CPI is presently seeking a publisher.
      • Habitat utilization, home range, population density, and the effects of collecting are being assessed on Little St. Simons Island, Georgia. Funding is through CPI and some is being sought through the Georgia DNR.
      • Habitat utilization, home range, and population density in flatwoods habitat is underway utilizing radiotelemetry in Compartment 100 on the Apalachicola National Forest.
    • Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) From 1976-1984, a population of the cottonmouth was studied in the Red Hills on Tall Timbers Research Station utilizing radiotelemetry. CPI now has Coastal Lowlands populations in flatwoods and river swamps under study near its facility in the Apalachicola National Forest, also using radiotelemetry. Results of all these studies are planned for a book on the species' ecology.
    • Eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus) o Culminating research on the populations of kingsnake across the Florida Panhandle, a research paper entitled, "Pattern variation in the kingsnake, Lampropeltis getulus, across the Apalachicola Region of Florida," has been published and is entitled, Biogeography and pattern variation of kingsnakes, Lampropeltis getula, in the Apalachicola region of Florida.   You can access this research paper by clicking on this URL: http://www.calacademy.org/research/herpetology/ch/ch/2001/5/index.htm.  Drs. Kenneth Krysko and Walter Judd published a follow-up second paper that can be read here (PDF file).
    • Ratsnakes and the remaining large species o Limited knowledge about the other snakes has been accumulating. Unfortunately, the research that was underway on Tall Timbers Research Station was cut short in 1984. However, plans to resume it in the near future are underway pending funding.
  • Grant funds are being sought to do a controlled study of the use by vertebrates of root cavities formed by rotting and/or burned out bases of longleaf pines and other trees.
  • Vertebrate Paleoecology of the Aucilla River Basin.
    In the late 1960s through the early 1980s, B. Means worked the bottom sediments of the Aucilla and Wacissa rivers for vertebrate fossils. Following that time, he and Harley Means and Ryan Means have accumulated a large data set of the occurrence of living vertebrates in the same drainage basin, which heads up in the Red Hills region of southern Georgia and flows through the Florida Big Bend. Presently CPI is working up all this material in the attempt to do a paleoecological study comparing the present-day vertebrate fauna with that of the recent past (through the end of the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago). This study will compare all the vertebrates, small and large, that have lived in this drainage basin over the past 15,000 years and try to advance some reasonable hypotheses about 1) what impacts the extinctions have had on the present flora and fauna, and 2) how and why have the surviving species been able to survive.
  • Wiregrass restoration:
    Results of a 17-year transplant experiment. In 1980 B. Means transplanted wiregrass, Aristida aristida, onto burn-study plots on Tall Timbers Research Station. In the summer and fall of 1999 Trina Mitchell surveyed the site and mapped all the new plants that have recruited there in the past 20 years. Tom Ostertag is working with Bruce Means to do a second follow-up census and publish the results. This will be the first research paper to describe the results of wiregrass establishment over such a long time period. Research paper planned for submission in 2000.
  • Small Isolated Water Bodies (Temporary Ponds).
    Twenty-five to thirty-five percent of the amphibians and reptiles living in any longleaf pine forest are obligately dependent upon small isolated water bodies (temporary ponds) in their life cycles. Beginning in 1968, B. Means has seined and dipnetted temporary ponds widely in the north Florida-south Georgia area for the purpose of determining the life cycles of many of the vertebrates using such water bodies. Then, in 1994, Means initiated long-term intensive studies of 250 temporary ponds in the Munson Sandhills physiographic region south of Tallahassee Florida. This research is funded by 1) the U. S. Forest Service, 2) the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 3) the Florida Department of Transportation. Three subprojects of the larger study are:
    • To work out the breeding cycles of the gopher frog (Rana capito) and striped newt (Notophthalmus perstriatus) in the Munson Sandhills. Both species of amphibians are under consideration by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for threatened status.
    • To determine the seasonal and annual use of Study Pond #1 by 31 species of amphibians and reptiles, and to assess the impacts on their populations of U. S. Highway 319 adjacent to the eastern side of the pond.
    • To determine whether certain silvicultural practices are harmful to the biodiversity of the Munson Sandhills.
  • Land Conservancy and Regional Biodiversity Conservation Activities
    • Sumatra property longleaf pine/seepage bog restoration
      In 1994 the Coastal Plains Institute acquired a superb 80-acre in-holding in the Apalachicola National Forest about 3 miles NW of Sumatra, Liberty County, Florida. Unfortunately, the dry uplands (about 40 acres) had been bedded and planted to slash pine about 1980, but our tract is surrounded by the very best stand of second-growth longleaf pine/wiregrass (by the Forest Service's own reckoning, Compartments 98 & 100) left on the national forest. In addition, it has 3 small (2-5 acres) seepage bogs, joins a 150-acre wet flat, and has a blackwater stream running through it. It is our goal to fully restore this site to its natural conditions, and to build a small facility there to serve as our biological research station and environmental education center.
    • Perdido Bay/Crown Pointe Preserve
      In 1996, the Coastal Plains Institute acquired a superb 170-acre white-topped pitcher plant bog on the eastern shores of Perdido Bay in Escambia County, Florida (west of Pensacola). We acquired this property as a mitigation package that allowed a developer to create a subdivision on about 20 acres of wetlands in exchange for giving CPI the ownership and a small endowment to assist in our management over time. CPI signed a conservation easement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in which our mission is to restore and maintain in perpetuity the wet flat to its presettlement condition. Mainly, this means applying prescribed fire frequently to suppress the evergreen shrubs (especially titi) that have invaded it. We have already divided the property into 40-acre management compartments and prescribe burned them for the first time in 1997. Coastal Plains Institute is looking for more such tracts to own and manage. We are available to receive mitigation lands, and looking for prospects.

  • © 2013 D. Bruce Means