By JACKIE HAUSLER
Published May 19, 2023
The 34-acre forest that sits on the northwestern edge of the UB North Campus has copious, year-round biodiversity. But the best-kept secrets of Letchworth Teaching Forest — the salamanders — lie beneath the ground, only emerging to the surface each spring.
The forest is currently abundant with vernal pools — seasonal, depressional bodies of water, largely accumulated from winter rains and snow — that provide predator-free habitat for seldom-seen animals to flourish. The positioning of the forest and the surrounding ecosystems near the Great Lakes offer optimal conditions for amphibians like the blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders to thrive.
Eager students from the Department of Environment and Sustainability (EVS) recently geared up in waders and boots to prepare for several nighttime explorations of the vernal ponds in hopes of finding the salamanders. Nick Henshue, associate teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in EVS, and Danielle Dolan, a department instructional assistant, met students at the forest to provide a brief overview about the salamanders and what to look for in the vernal pools, as well as how to spot their eggs.
Upon entering the forest, students searched under bark, logs, rocks and leaf accumulation around the edges of the pools, where the salamanders prefer to hide, as well as deeper in the water, where fertilized eggs had already been laid in long strings of jelly.
Anna Wojtowicz, a senior in the program concentrating on environmental sustainability, found one of the group’s first salamanders of the evening. “Hands-on experiences like this are one of my favorite parts of the EVS program,” says Wojtowicz. “It has definitely helped me get ready for graduation because I would love to be involved with field work in my future endeavors.” She has a job opportunity lined up with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, with her sights set on working with invasive species.
Typically, one large and many small vernal pools form throughout Letchworth Teaching Forest, making it the perfect place for students to explore.
“This helps prepare me for graduation and gives me a feel for what real surveys would be like,” says Kaelie Butterfield, a senior environmental geosciences major. “I love to get as much experience as possible and really value all the time I have in the field.
“I am very interested in vernal pool ecosystems and wetland ecology, and I wanted to see if there would be any salamanders out,” Butterfield adds. “I love looking for invertebrates and amphibians.”
“Searching through knee-deep, dark black water at night is something many students don’t get to experience before coming out with us,” Henshue explains. “The thrill of finding that huge, five- or six-inch blue spotted salamander is a game-changer. That’s when our students know they are in the right department. EVS is providing experiences that most students did not know exist — and that’s the magic of what we do out here.”
To learn more about Letchworth Teaching Forest, visit the Department of Environment and Sustainability’s website.