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Biology Professor Receives $25,000 for Salamander Research

  • News Image
    Senior Alex Hall counts Georgetown salamanders at one of the springs where they live.
  • News Image
    The Georgetown Salamander is threatened because development has degraded the water quality where it lives.

Work could help save the threatened Georgetown Salamander

A Southwestern biology professor has received a $25,000 grant to conduct research that may help the threatened Georgetown salamander.

The Georgetown salamander (Eurycea naufragia) is a small salamander that is believed to exist only in Williamson County. It lives in springs found in the South, Middle and North Forks of the San Gabriel River and in wet caves. The salamander is threatened because many of the springs where it lives have been degraded by development. 

Williamson County and the Williamson County Conservation Foundation are trying to develop a conservation plan for the salamander before it is too late. They have hired SWCA Environmental Consultants, an Austin-based consulting firm, to help them with this task. Ben Pierce, a professor of biology at Southwestern, has been awarded a subcontract from SWCA to help with several aspects of its work.

Pierce will begin by researching studies that have been done on other species of salamanders that may provide information helpful in developing a conservation plan for the Georgetown salamander.

In addition, he and several Southwestern students will perform studies known as “mark-recapture” studies that are designed to accurately determine the number of salamanders currently living at several sites in Williamson County. They also will conduct monthly surface counts of salamanders at two springs. Pierce and his students have already been conducting such monthly surface counts for the past two years on a volunteer basis.  

Although the initial grant is only for one year, Pierce said he expects the project will continue for several years.

Protecting the Georgetown salamander is one of several elements of the Williamson County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan, which was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 to further responsible development in the county within the federal requirements of the Endangered Species Act. By participating in the plan, governmental entities including cities and school districts, landowners and developers can navigate the requirements of the Endangered Species Act in a more expedient and cost-effective manner. Prior to the establishment of the regional plan, all entities impacting endangered species needed to obtain an individual 10(a) permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The regional plan offers a simplified option to comply with the Endangered Species Act through voluntary participation. 

Pierce said the regional conservation plan is a “win-win” situation for all parties because development projects can move forward faster and a comprehensive plan is developed for protection of the endangered species as opposed to individual developers submitting their own plans.

In addition to the Georgetown salamander, Williamson County is home to several species that are either endangered or threatened, including the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler, the Tooth Cave ground beetle, the Bone Cave harvestman and the Coffin Cave mold beetle. 

The conservation plan for the Georgetown salamander is expected to involve both land acquisition and ongoing monitoring. The Williamson County Conservation Foundation has received nearly $3 million in federal grants for compliance with the Endangered Species Act.