Hello there! My name is Claire Chinery, and I am a Herpetology Keeper here at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Specifically, I work with our amphibians at the Amphibian Conservation Center at the Save the Frogs building, and today I'd like to tell you about some of the rarest members of our amphibian collection - striped newts! Striped newts live in Florida and Georgia, breed in temporary wetlands in sandy pine forests, and get their name from their handsome red stripes down their sides, as you can see in the photo below.
Striped Newts are a highly endangered species that used to live in over much of North Florida and South Georgia. Now, they are only found in just a few wetlands in Georgia and Florida. In 2012, the Coastal Plains Institute (CPI), an organization dedicated to preserving biological diversity in the coastal plain, determined that striped newts were missing or nearly gone from their historical habitat in the Apalachicola National Forest. Something had to be done... and that's where zoos and CPI began collaborating and breeding striped newts for release back into the wild!
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has been working with striped newts since 2007. During that time, we have bred over 1,500 newts that have been returned to their native habitat or given to other facilities to help them start breeding projects of their own. We joined forces with the Coastal Plains Institute in 2012 and began breeding newts specifically for release into the Apalachicola National Forest.
I personally got involved with the Striped Newt Project earlier this year, when I started working at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens as a temporary keeper. At the end of the year, I got the job of my dreams when I was hired on as a full-time keeper, and you can usually find me caring for the striped newts and their friends at the Amphibian Conservation Center!
Striped newts breed in the winter, so we use chillers to lower the water in their tanks to a very brisk 44ºF. Around January, I can begin finding tiny, pearl-like eggs in their habitats, which are shown by the orange arrows in the photo below. I put the eggs in deli cups, then wait two weeks for them to hatch. Newly hatched striped newts are TINY - pretty much just eyes and a tail! We start out feeding them very small brine shrimp, and as they grow, they will graduate to larger brine shrimp and worms. The larvae hatch out with gills, but those gills are absorbed as they grow. When their gills disappear, we know they are ready for a life on land, and ready for release back into their natural habitat. The photos below show newt eggs, and year-old juvenile newts that are ready for release!
Every year, we pack up all the newts in special fish bags and coolers and drive them to Apalachicola National Forest for release. Before the newts can be released, we weigh measure them, and tag each newt with non-toxic fluorescent colored tags that will tell us the year they were released and their genetic lineage, in case they are ever recaptured. All of this allows us to measure the health of the newt populations over time. This whole process takes several hours, since we do it newt-by-newt. Below are pictures of the newts being tagged, and testing with a flashlight to make sure the tags are visible.
Finally, it's time for the release, and it's an amazing experience! We simply scoop up the newts and gently set them in their new home. At first, most newts sit still and don't quite seem to know what to make of this new situation, then suddenly the dive headfirst into the water, hiding in the weeds just like a healthy newt should do. It's amazing to watch them discover this habitat, and to know that every year, with every newt released, we are getting closer to our goal of re-establishing a healthy breeding population of newts in the wild. This year was a huge success - the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens had 200 newt larvae that were released, in addition to 115 from other zoos and facilities for a grand total of 315!
Of course, we couldn't breed and release this many newts on our own - it truly takes a village! The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens works closely with CPI and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), who make sure that we have suitable release spots for our newts and monitor the wild newt populations on an ongoing basis. The Central Florida Zoo, Detroit Zoo, and the Memphis Zoo also breed striped newts, and we bring them for release at the same time - it's a big newt-fest! As you can see in the photo below of one of our tagging stations, it's a lot of teamwork and a lot of fun!
Thanks for learning a bit more about our amphibian conservation at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; every time you visit, you are helping to support many conservation projects like this one all over the world. Next time you're the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, come see our striped newts for yourself at our Amphibian Conservation Center!
Written by Claire Chinery, Herpetology Keeper