Managing biodiversity

Saving local biodiversity in the South through community partnerships

John Maerz

Josiah Meigs Distinguished Professor

Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Written by Leonor Sierra

Published 12.09.20

It was a fall night, 10 years ago, and John Maerz was in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina for his first night of work on a new project.

In the dark on the wet forest floor, he was looking for salamanders. When he caught one, he tagged it with a special “tattoo” and released it. One of them was no more than 3-months old and less than an inch long.

Only a fraction of animals this small will survive to adulthood, so Maerz didn’t have expectation he would see this animal again.

But 10 years later he went back to the same spot—one he’d come to a hundred times since that first night a decade ago and where he had captured and marked hundreds of salamanders. As he was checking one salamander’s tattoo code in his database, he was astonished to learn it was that tiny juvenile from the very first night, now a mature adult of nearly 4 inches long.

By catching, marking and releasing salamanders, Maerz and his team are able estimate how many individuals are in an area and whether the population is experiencing declines.

Maerz, a Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Vertebrate Ecology in the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, studies the responses of animals to environmental changes, such as the introduction of invasive species, new land uses and climate change.

With that information, Maerz and his team develop approaches to help communities manage and conserve their native biodiversity.

The pressures of ex-urban development in Southern Appalachia

Maerz’s team has documented between 1,000-40,000 salamanders per acre for a single species in Southern Appalachia. The region provides one of the richest habitats in the world for salamanders as well as other plant and animal species. Salamanders are such an integral part of the Appalachian forest that if their numbers were to significantly change, it could affect the rest of the ecosystem.

“The region is changing. Historically, people have lived in the lower elevation areas for farming,” said Maerz. “But now people from Atlanta and Charlotte and Knoxville want retirement or second homes in the mountains, and they’re not interested in farming. What they’re interested in is a beautiful view. So over the last several decades, we’ve seen an increase of development at mid and higher elevations in the mountains. Even relatively small losses of forest at these higher elevations appear to be causing local salamander populations to decline.”

Working in partnership with the local community

And it’s not just salamanders. On Jekyll Island, Maerz and his team studied the threats to diamondback terrapins, which live in the salt marshes and are at risk of decline and local extinction because of human-related threats.

The turtles get into crab traps and drown, and females are often hit by cars when crossing roads in search of nesting areas.

“So we spent nearly 10 years trying to estimate and develop models, and measure the impact of roads and crabbing on terrapins,” said Maerz. “We then worked with the local community and ran different scenarios and strategies for them using all of the biology that we had learned about the turtle and helped them develop a plan for trying to conserve that turtle species.”

Diamondback Terrapin Turtle

The strategies, from flashing signs that warn drivers of nesting turtles to barriers that keep terrapins off the road, are yielding results. The decline in the terrapin population has slowed.

As ecologists develop tools and new models to improve our understanding of animal populations, it is up to communities to reflect on the value of wildlife and partner with scientists like Maerz to manage and conserve their biodiversity.

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