Love at first swim

Jepson Prairie salamanders selected for genetic dating game

Forget the Bachelor and the Bachelorette. The most exciting dating game of 2023 is happening in a gigantic puddle near you!

Twenty of Jepson Prairie’s healthy, adult California Tiger Salamanders—ten males and ten females—are taking (or have won?) a “temporary vacation down to Santa Barbara,” as Project Manager Jasmine Westbrook-Barsukov puts it.

There are generally three recognized subpopulations of California Tiger Salamander, each federally listed. The Central California salamanders living at Jepson are listed as vulnerable. The other two Distinct Population Segments, Sonoma County DPS and Santa Barbara County DPS are endangered.

Mt. Diablo from Jepson Prairie
By: Doug Wirtz

Salamanders in the southern reaches of the state face unique challenges. Some previous research showed that those Santa Barbara ones have lower survival rates of eggs and larvae.

“Low reproductive success is a common symptom of genetic depression, or inbreeding,” Jasmine says. “That’s why the population needs a genetic post. The Santa Barbara population is the one that is experiencing the worst decline and is the most at risk of all of these endangered species populations. There's really no way for salamanders to naturally find salamanders from other populations and get more diversity into that gene pool.”

To address this issue, scientists needed to locate a habitat with a healthy population of Central California Salamanders. They found it on the land you have protected: Jepson Prairie Preserve. Collectively, the Preserve and its adjacent projections now conserve over 4,000 acres of California Tiger Salamander habitat, a stronghold of stability for this species.

The selection process is unglamorous at first. Salamanders make their journey to the pools under the protection of the worse possible weather: rainy, cloudy nights bereft of moonlight. Scientists out in the same conditions will safely recover healthy adult salamanders from the pools, check them for size and suitability. Then the amphibians will be transported south to artificially made pools hosting the Santa Barbara subpopulation.

Tiger California Salamander
By: Doug Wirtz

California Tiger Salamander
By: Doug Wirtz

Tiger Salamander
By: Natalie DuMont

The hope is that the robust salamanders of our region will pass on more desirable traits during the mating season. If the crosses do not produce fit individuals, that too will influence future management decisions.

All this is possible because of the vast extent of vernal pool habitat that donors and landowners have rallied to protect.

“Jepson Prairie and the surrounding ranches compose one continuous ecosystem,” Jasmine says. “The grazing management by the Hamilton family helps our population to remain strong even though we had two years of drought in 2019 and 2020. Despite that, local salamanders are still vigorous enough to be considered as a potential to save this other population and that is only the case because we've protected their habitat.”

And on these protected lands, salamanders have enough space for animals to mate in pools, feed on crustaceans, journey a mile by foot to gopher-dug burrows, and play a genetic dating game whose prize is a brighter future for a beloved, iconic California species.

We look forward to updating you further on the romance and drama to follow.

Jepson Prairie’s Dipper Docents will lead weekend Wildflower and Critter Walk tours of the property at 10:00 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday from March 11th through May 14th. Recent rainfall has filled the pools to a very high level that will benefit the amphibians and crustaceans.