A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

In Search of the Red-backed Salamander

This post was contributed by Armina Del Toro, Wave Hill’s School Programs Manager.

Two years ago, Wave Hill embarked on a partnership with Lehman College’s Bronx Institute; as a result, the Salamander Project was created. For the past two years, 7th and 8th grade students from The Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice (MS 505), and Mosholu Parkway’s MS 280 have come together for an unforgettable outdoor experience.  This year marks the third year of this exciting partnership.

Meeting every Saturday for six weeks, Salamander Project students head out, rain or shine, to act as citizen scientists in search of the Red-backed (and Lead-backed) Salamander. What is a citizen scientist, you may ask yourself? Citizen scientists are usually people with little or no scientific training who volunteer time to do research for environmental institutions, as well as on local, national and international environmental initiatives. These volunteer opportunities are critical for compiling data and gathering statistical information about particularly sensitive areas and the species that inhabit them.

The salamander teens work in two areas of Riverdale Park in the Bronx. Site A is a restored site which has been thoroughly maintained by Wave Hill’s Forest Project for 30 years. Site B is an un-restored part of Riverdale Park that has been devoid of salamanders for quite some time.  The students involved in the Salamander Project search for salamanders and develop hypotheses about the presence of salamanders, or lack thereof.   

25 eager NYC teens, unfamiliar with the woods and their denizens, head into Riverdale Park and break up into teams to explore salamander populations in relation to invasive plant species, invertebrates and soil composition. They use large measuring tapes to set up 30-foot transects. Within these transects the students carefully flip every rock and sweep aside deep leaf litter as they carefully maneuver around the most dangerous of urban flora―poison ivy.  (It helps to remember the old rhyme “Leaves of three let them be. Hairy rope, don’t be a dope”, to keep in mind the characteristics of poison ivy.)

The students call out to their teammates to remind them to watch their step. As a student gently turns over a rock or log there is a nervous excitement. Will there be a salamander underneath? Under the first log, a centipede scurries quickly to safety while a millipede curls up to hide from the light. No salamander. Under the next log, the students find nothing but some seeds sprouting and last year’s leaf skeletons. Recording their findings and slightly disappointed, they head over to the next rock. “Rock number five” calls out one of the team members as they quickly scan the underside. Suddenly, someone yells out “I found one!” Startled, the salamander pauses as though he were examining the students. With their gloved hands the students reach in, grab the salamander and quickly measure its body length and observe its color “Red-backed, 1 inch in length”.  

Although there were some “Eww, salamanders are gross” in the beginning sessions, the students have now established a relationship with these animals and treat them like diamonds.  In a forest ecosystem like Riverdale Park, that is exactly what salamanders are. Salamanders are known as bio-indicators or ecological indicators, because if they are present your forest is likely to be healthy. It is our hope that this experience will help students recognize their local environment and promote future stewards of the environment.

I am already looking forward to May 22, when the teens will present their findings in a final celebration of the Salamander Project. I hope that this is an experience they will remember well into adulthood.

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