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Biologist surveys reptiles, amphibians for atlas


NEW GERMANY -- Jim Fregonara spends a few days each week hiking through maturing forests of oaks and maples, hemlocks and white pines, seeking isolated areas near streams and swamps, where wet, slimy creatures live.

Mr. Fregonara, a seasonal biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, is searching for newts, salamanders, frogs, toads, snakes and turtles. These reptiles and amphibians are as much a part of the ecosystem of Savage River State Forest in Garrett County as white-tailed deer, black bears and numerous other mammals and rodents.

Mr. Fregonara is among a team of biologists working in Maryland's woods, swamps and fields, trying to catalog such creatures, their numbers, and the health of their populations and habitats.

The two-year study began this winter, and includes the Prettyboy Reservoir in Baltimore, the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary in Calvert County and Pocomoke State Forest on the Eastern Shore.

"A lot of the reptile and amphibian population is on the downside," Mr. Fregonara said. "No one really knows why. Some say it's a natural population dip. Some say it's acid rain or holes in the ozone."

Their worldwide decline may be a more telling sign, some say. Many equate them with the role of canaries in coal mines -- an environmental warning.

Duncan Morrow, a spokesman for the National Biological Service, a federal agency that awarded Maryland a $150,000 grant for the study, said anecdotal evidence suggests that reptile and amphibian populations in the state are dwindling. Maryland officials want a scientific evaluation.

When the study is completed next year, the results will be used to compile an atlas listing the 52 species of reptiles and 42 species of amphibians found in Maryland, their numbers, the health of their populations and the ecosystem they inhabit.

The project will serve as a prototype for other states and already is being copied by Tennessee officials.

"The atlas will be around to let people know what we have and what we found," Mr. Fregonara said. "Reptiles and amphibians are just as important as any other creatures. They eat insects and worms."

Scott Smith, one of DNR's managers of the project, said the survey will play a role in ecosystem management plans being developed in Maryland. It also will help DNR in reviewing development projects for potential damage to these species and their habitats.

"Amphibians and reptiles are part of our natural heritage, and we need to maintain viable populations of these species and protect their habitats," he said. "This is for the future of Maryland. This is a rich state as far as natural resources, and I hope the richness is still there for my ancestors."

Like that of his counterparts, Mr. Fregonara's work in Western Maryland is a solitary affair. He spends several hours a day traipsing through woods, fields and swamps in eastern Garrett County to check funnel traps and pitfalls, 5-gallon buckets buried in the ground, for amphibians and reptiles.

These traps have been set along drift fences -- sheets of aluminum several feet long -- that halt snakes or other creatures and divert them to the traps. Damp sponges keep the creatures moist. The traps are closed on weekends.

Any creatures that are caught are identified by species and sex, weighed and measured, marked (so he knows if he catches it again) and then set free. Dead species, including small mammals, are bagged, tagged and cataloged in a university collection.

So far, Mr. Fregonara has pulled red-spotted salamanders, four-toed salamanders, spring salamanders, American toads, green frogs, black rat snakes and others.

'That's science'

He has yet to come across turtles or venomous snakes such as timber rattlesnakes or copperheads. And though they can be found in these parts, he has not yet come across a bear (he admitted, though, that noisy chipmunks have caused him to glance over his shoulder more than once).

One wet May week, he caught 30 salamanders.

A week later, though, without any rain, Mr. Fregonara's efforts were less fruitful. He found only a few dead mice, beetles and other bugs and a live deer mouse, which he set free. Even wetter areas, near Finzel and Wolf swamps, failed to produce results.

"Oh, well, that's science," Mr. Fregonara said nonchalantly. "Sometimes these critters just don't want to cooperate."

Mr. Fregonara was more fortunate in a random survey. Under rocks and logs along a trail lined with ferns and skunk cabbage, he found mountain dusky salamanders, a four-toed salamander and even a garter snake and milk snake.

And along this same path leading to Wolf Swamp, a marshy area in Savage River State Forest, Mr. Fregonara found free-floating globs in water-filled ruts made by heavy trucks. The gelatin-like globs are the eggs of salamanders and newts.

Part of the job

Once a month, Mr. Fregonara slips on hip boots and walks into a vernal pond in Wolf Swamp, dips a net into the murky water to catch and identify the egg masses of amphibians. It's all part of the job.

Next year, DNR will recruit volunteers to help with random surveying, including flipping logs and rocks in and out of streams, checking roadways for snakes on warm, dry nights or amphibians on wet, warm nights.

"We'll have lots of volunteers next year," he said. "It's a lot of fun. You kind of get to be a kid."

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