Belonging to the group of mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma), the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) is a species of salamander native to the US state of California.
As part of my research into these beautiful creatures, I was saddened to learn that the species was once abundant throughout much of California but now only exists in a handful of protected areas. What happened?
Here’s what I discovered:
California tiger salamander populations have declined dramatically over the last century due to habitat destruction caused by urbanization, agriculture, and other causes (invasive species, disease, road mortality).
For more information about their status in the wild, what’s behind their declining population, and what’s being done to prevent their extinction, continue reading!
Table of Contents
- Why Are California Tiger Salamanders Endangered?
- How Many California Tiger Salamanders Are Left?
- California Tiger Salamander Conservation Efforts
Why Are California Tiger Salamanders Endangered?
In the section below, we will take a look at the precise status of the California tiger salamander, as well as the causes of its declining population.
Thanks to the efforts of wildlife preservation bodies such as the Center for Biological Diversity, the California tiger salamander is listed as both an endangered species, and a threatened species by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
As stated on their website, the mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment in the United States of America.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, endangered species are fauna or flora (animals or plants) in immediate danger of extinction.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, threatened species are fauna or flora (animals or plants) whose population numbers are so low that they may become endangered in the future.
But why 2 different conservation statuses, you may ask? Surely a species is either Threatened or Endangered, but not both…
The explanation is that because the habitat of the California tiger salamander is so fragmented, distinct local populations are evolving in complete isolation from one another. These populations are what’s known as Distinct Population Segments or DPS.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Endangered Species Act defines a Distinct Population Segment as: “a vertebrate population or group of populations that is discrete from other populations of the species and significant in relation to the entire species.”
Each distinct population segment is presented with its own set of challenges, with certain groups of California tiger salamanders facing a more imminent threat of extinction than others.
- Santa Barbara DPS (listed on 01-19-2000).
- Sonoma DPS (listed on 07-22-2002).
- Central California DPS (listed on 08-04-2004).
The main threat to the survival of the California tiger salamander is habitat destruction. Habitat destruction is the number one threat to the survival of wildlife in the USA and many places around the world.
Habitat destruction – or habitat loss – is when the conditions necessary for the survival of a species in its native habitat are altered to such an extent that the habitat is no longer capable of supporting the species.
Habitat destruction is itself caused by several phenomena, such as urbanization and intensive agriculture. These phenomena, both caused by humans, lead to a fragmentation of the habitat and degradation of living conditions.
To make way for new developments and farmlands, California’s vernal pools (where salamanders lay their eggs and spend a large portion of their larval lives) and wetlands are being drained, and the grasslands and woodlands where they spend most of their adult lives are being flattened and/or cut down.
As a result, the California tiger salamander is left with far fewer places to live and breed. But that’s not all!
Entire chunks of the population are being separated into distinct local populations, which can no longer interact with each other due to physical separation caused by the construction of infrastructure such as roads, housing estates, shopping malls, industrial zones, etc. This segregation is trapping populations in areas where they’re under increased pressure, with no option to go elsewhere and fewer potential mates to breed with. The latter is also directly responsible for narrowing the gene pool and making these local populations more vulnerable.
Moreover, pesticides and herbicides for intensive farming combined with pollution from industry (harmful chemicals, heavy metals, toxins, etc.) are causing drastic deterioration in the quality of the water and air – to which salamanders are extremely sensitive; as well as fueling the loss of critical populations of plants and animals which form part of the California tiger salamander’s ecosystem and food chain.
Both the deteriorating water and air conditions and the declining food supplies are causing the California tiger salamander population to become weaker and more prone to illness, attack by predators and death.
As a result, fewer tiger salamanders are reaching adulthood and breeding. The declining larvae populations are subject to the same deteriorating environmental conditions.
Non-Habitat Related Threats
Unfortunately for the California tiger salamander, threats to its survival aren’t limited to habitat destruction. Several other threats put the animal in jeopardy.
An invasive species is a species that is non-native to a given habitat, is introduced (generally by man), and becomes overpopulated, thereby adversely affecting the native species by causing ecological and environmental damage to its native habitat.
Several non-native salamander species, as well as hybridized salamanders, are competing with the native California tiger salamander for resources and have the potential to negatively impact population numbers.
Moreover, certain exotic or invasive species of flora are colonizing the native grasslands and preventing the California tiger salamander from digging burrows. Deprived of shelter, the animals are exposed and more vulnerable.
Some pathogens, including the ranavirus and chytrid fungus, threaten the California tiger salamander in general and its larvae in particular.
A surprising number of California tiger salamanders are victims of road mortality. How, you may ask? They’re hardly involved in car crashes…right?
It’s far more trivial than that. California tiger salamanders are simply getting run over by cars when they cross or lay on the road. This number has been increasing as new roads have been built across the animal’s native habitat. Road fatalities tend to increase from mid-winter to early spring as tiger salamanders migrate to their breeding sites.
How Many California Tiger Salamanders Are Left?
No data is available about exactly how many California tiger salamanders are left in the wild. Indeed, these creatures live in borrows and spend most of their lives underground, making it very hard to accurately survey population numbers.
California Tiger Salamander Conservation Efforts
However, as California tiger salamanders stare into the abyss of extinction, all is not lost. Efforts by both charitable organizations and state & federal bodies have been made to protect the indigenous species.
Several charitable organizations, local wildlife groups, or NGOs have been advocating for preserving the California Tiger Salamander.
One such organization is the Center for Biological Diversity, which strives to “secure a future for all species […] through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.”
Their efforts, in particular, were vital to the California tiger salamander gaining endangered and threatened species status – thereby giving them a better chance of survival.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has put in place a number of Recovery Plans for the species. Each local population – or Distinct Population Segment – has its own recovery plan, with specific actions tailored to protect Ambystoma californiense in its local habitats.
Here are links to each recovery plan:
- Santa Barbara DPS California Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan
- Sonoma DPS California Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan
- Central California DPS California Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan
To ensure that these plans are implemented, the Implementation Status of each plan, as well as each and every action listed in the plans, are tracked. This ensures that everybody responsible for carrying out these actions is held accountable.
You will find a link to each implementation status report below:
- Santa Barbara DPS California Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan Implementation Status
- Sonoma DPS California Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan Implementation Status
- Central California DPS California Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan Implementation Status
While I was saddened to learn that the California tiger salamander was both a threatened and endangered species, I was also very pleased to learn that a lot of work is being done to protect the animal at both the administrative level and by people on the ground.
I hope this post will have helped you better understand why the California tiger salamander is under threat and what’s being done to eliminate and mitigate the causes of its decline.
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