Biological Monitoring for MoCo

Field Reports from Department of Environmental Protection Staff

  • March 2009
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Canaries of Our Streams

Posted by mocobio on March 24, 2009

We biologists are busy this spring collecting data on the presence and range of amphibians and reptiles (known as herpetofauna) during the brief time when the species are actively breeding.

This herpetofauna component of the biological monitoring program provides useful information on headwater streams, where monitoring fish is not as reliable an indicator of water quality.  Monitoring a variety of species improves the County’s ability to assess biodiversity and watershed health trends.

Monitoring frogs and salamanders in seasonal pools  is an important part of DEP’s efforts to assess the health of the county’s watersheds and ecosystems. These creatures are very sensitive to stressors that impact water quality or habitat conditions. A decline in their health can be an early indicator of ecosystem problems.


Jenny with spotted salamanders
Jenny with spotted salamanders


We investigated the McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area in the evening hours, when the salamanders and frogs come alive, and start moving around. We’re finding a number of calling frogs such as wood frogs, northern spring peepers, pickerel frogs and toads, as well as spotted salamanders. We’re noting their numbers and looking for any anomalies on their bodies.

Locate McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area on this Map

Spotted salamanders getting cosy on Rachel's lap

Spotted salamanders getting cosy on Rachel's lap


Frogs, toads, and salamanders are all amphibians. This group of animals act like “canaries in a coalmine” for indicating water quality problems or environmental problems. All amphibians absorb water through their skin, allowing a direct route for toxins and pollutants into their bodies. These animals also rely on good water quality earlier in their lives. Their eggs must be laid out in very moist soil or directly in water. Most tadpoles and salamander larvae finish their development directly in the water. These animals are also very long-lived, most exceeding at least five years of age, and some salamanders living to over 20 years.


Rachel Gauza holding up a Spring Peeper

Rachel Gauza holding up a Spring Peeper

In general, we see areas of the County that are more rural and forested having a lot of amphibians and reptiles, including the sensitive and specialized ones. Areas of the County that are highly-urban (such as those closer to the District of Columbia) have much lower numbers and the specialized and sensitive species are no longer there.


Spotted Salamanders laid against a leaf
Spotted Salamanders laid against a leaf

During our surveys we will visiting stream sites, wetlands, and seasonal pools and search for amphibians and reptiles. We listen for calling frogs, look directly in the water for animals, and look under rocks, logs, and other places where these animals would be hiding.


Northern Spring Peeper on a Tree

Northern Spring Peeper on a Tree


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One Response to “Canaries of Our Streams”

  1. Jennifer St. John said

    If you would like to learn hands-on about the streams in your County, join our crew as a volunteer! Contact Jennifer St. John for more information.


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