Aerial view of a Carolina bay
Carolina bay with cypress
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The students and teachers of East Aiken Elementary School began their virtual walking tour of the Southeast on September 8, 1999. They did not have to go far to find their first haven for herps. The Savannah River Site (SRS) is located about 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the school. The SRS, which is a nuclear production facility operated by the Department of Energy, is a large tract of land that has an extremely high diversity of reptiles and amphibians; 102 species have been found on the site. It is at the Savannah River Site that the University of Georgia operates the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). Researchers at SREL study many aspects of the environment, including studies on wildlife, plant communities, and the effects of contaminants on the ecology of the SRS (for more information of SREL’s research programs, visit the SREL web site). The habitats of the SRS and the research of SREL provide an informative beginning to East Aiken’s southeastern adventure.
One area of research that SREL is well known for is its long-term studies of amphibians, including marbled, mole, tiger, and spotted salamanders (view the marbled salamander Species Account). The southeastern U.S. is a "hot spot" for salamanders, as students will learn at several points along their walk. Some species of salamanders are terrestrial (meaning they spend all their time on land, including when they lay eggs), some live in creeks, streams, rivers and swamps, and some live most of their lives in woods but come to ponds when they are ready to breed. It is a few of these pond-breeding salamanders that are the subject of this week’s stop at the Savannah River Site (SRS).
The SRS, with over 300 square miles (80,000 hectares) of land, has numerous wetlands and other types of habitats. Many of the wetlands are "seasonal" or "ephemeral," which simply means that the sites occasionally dry. Some of these seasonal wetlands dry each year, some every few years, and a few may only dry once a decade or so. Many of the seasonal wetlands on the SRS are called Carolina bays ( view Carolina bay Fact Sheet).
Many of the Carolina bay wetlands are extremely important breeding sites for amphibians, including pond-breeding salamanders. Permanent bodies of water, such as lakes and reservoirs and farm ponds, are often home to many species of fish. Fish such as bluegill, pickerel and largemouth bass are very efficient predators. In general, although there are some exceptions, amphibians just do not do well in habitats where fish are present, because the larval amphibians (and sometimes the adults) get eaten. Thus, seasonal wetlands such as Carolina bays are ideal habitats for many amphibians, because fish are usually absent due the occasional drying of the aquatic habitats.