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.