Operation Salamander

Hundreds of salamanders in the upper Galilee owe their lives to an ecologist from the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) and a scientist from Tel Aviv University, who have recently been conducting a survey of the region's winter ponds. Last week ecologist Talia Oron and Dr. Sarig Gafny visited Jamilya pond, near the village of Fasuta. They discovered that the winter pond, in which the salamanders should have been developing and growing, had dried up and the lives of hundreds of salamander tadpoles were about to be cut short. Following their discovery, the tadpoles were transferred to a nearby pond two days later.

Jamilya pond is near Fasuta, north of Ma'alot. Oron relates that up until a few years ago the pond would fill up each winter and the water remained until the summer. One of the animals that benefited from the pond's waters was the salamander, an amphibian that starts its life as a tadpole hatched in the water, where it develops and matures into an adult that lives on land. Each female salamander spawns up to 200 eggs per season, and salamanders have a life span of up to 20 years. They usually spend the summer in damp, concealed locations, waiting for the next winter.

Various agricultural work carried out in this region has altered the pond's water drainage, as a result of which it has begun to dry up earlier than in previous years. This means there is no longer enough water to ensure that the salamanders reach maturity. The salamanders, however, were not aware of this change, and continued to spawn in the pool, essentially dooming their young to certain death.

"The salamanders remember the pool as a safe place and know nothing of the disruption of the water balance in recent years," says Oron. "We had not visited this pond recently. It is only thanks to the survey that we discovered the problem."

Oron and Gafny discovered the tadpoles when they were just about to die and decided to transfer them to the Fasuta pond, a declared nature reserve where the water is up to one meter (three feet) deep. Oron says they managed to transfer some 1,000 tadpoles, but many more had already died in parts of the pond that had dried up.

"Salamanders also live in springs in the Galilee," says Oron. "Winter ponds have a unique ecosystem suitable for seasonal flooding, and are home to other species of animals. We are now trying to work in conjunction with the people in Fasuta to ensure better drainage to Jamilya pond, so salamanders will be able to live there in the future. We are also trying to protect Fasuta pond, with the cooperation of the villagers."

The salamander is one of the six species of amphibian found in Israel. Five of these species, including the salamander, are in danger of extinction. The common spadefoot toad and the banded newt, are at the greatest risk. A seventh species, the Hula painted frog, became extinct following the drying of Hula Lake.

One of the means employed by the INNPPA to combat the extinction of Israel's amphibians is the construction of man-made ponds to replace the ones whose water balance has been harmed. Tadpoles from these ponds are transferred to the new ponds, which have been established in the Mediterranean coastal region.