The tiger salamander was almost a foot long, with black markings decorating its mud-brown body.
Larry Stevens, senior ecologist with the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, found the animal lazing in the shallow water of a marsh bordering the Colorado River last week.
“Holy cow," Stevens remembered thinking to himself. “This is an incredibly new find for the Colorado River.”
Stevens was at the river, nine miles upstream from Lees Ferry, with a group of Prescott College students and faculty who were helping construct the final two of three manmade marshes in the area. The project, which started in 2011, is part of riparian area restoration work the wildlands council is spearheading on the banks of the Colorado River.
This particular project aims to recreate historic pond habitat where native northern leopard frogs once thrived so the species, which is in decline, can be relocated there once again.
The Arizona tiger salamander discovery is just the most recent surprise for the volunteers as they have worked to recreate open water habitat that once existed on the banks of this mighty river, said Kelly Burke, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.
After the organization constructed the first marsh last year, monitoring efforts have already found breeding rocky mountain toads, raccoons, western harvest mice and Virginia rail, a small bird with a slightly curved red-orange bill.
“The interesting thing is when you do something novel like this and bring back this type of habitat, it brings surprises,” Burke said.
Figuring out the salamander story
Now wildlife experts are trying to determine the possible history of the lone tiger salamander found in the marsh. Wildlife experts say it’s one of the only, if not the only, Arizona tiger salamander sighted down at the river’s edge.
There’s no doubt that the amphibian is native to Arizona, but usually tiger salamanders are found at higher elevations, said Thomas R. Jones, amphibians and reptiles program manager with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The animals are widespread across the Colorado Plateau and are common around Flagstaff, Jones said.
One likely possibility is that the salamander was part of a population living on the plateau and somehow wandered down a side canyon and ended up at the river. Many of the drainages leading to the river from the Navajo Nation and other adjacent lands are known to contain tiger salamanders, said Shaula Hedwall, senior fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It's unlikely that the salamander is part of a breeding population native to that area. Instead, another possibility is that the salamander could be an invader, brought in by fisherman when live bait fishing was allowed on that part of the river decades ago.
Tiger salamanders can live up to 20 years, so it's not impossible that the animal could have been destined for fish feed at one point and survived in the canyon since then, Jones said.
The animals munch on earthworms, tadpoles and any other soft bodied animals they can fit into their wide mouths, Stevens said.
If the tiger salamander has been in the area for years, it’s a mystery as to how it survived without standing water, because the marsh was only created last year, Burke said. Also interesting is that tiger salamanders tend to be associated with ephemeral water bodies rather than springs, which are what feed the marsh where this creature was found.
“That’s the part that’s very intriguing -- that it somehow managed to survive without open water with only a spring,” Burke said.
Also up in the air is how the salamander’s presence will affect the efforts to reintroduce leopard frogs into the manmade marshes, called Leopard Frog Marsh after their native occupants.
Whatever happens, Burke emphasized the broad benefits of recreating historic ecosystems on the Colorado River.
“The diversity of life when you have open water habitat with flowing water and surface water, there's always something popping up,” she said.