Science to safeguard species

UC Natural Reserve System lands are home to dozens of vulnerable animal and plant species. These range from some of the state’s rarest amphibians to endemic plants to icons of the West such as bighorn sheep. Studies conducted at the 39 reserves of the NRS informs how these species are managed, which helps preserve the Golden State’s extraordinary biological diversity.

Scientists “can work in protected areas that allow them to follow the biology and the ecosystem dynamics of these rare and endangered species. We’re really proud of that,” says Peggy Fiedler, executive director of the NRS.

A prime example is Brad Shaffer’s research on the California tiger salamander. AUC Los Angeles biology professor, Shaffer knew the salamander congregated to breed in grassland pools that form after winter rains. But most vernal pools dry up completely during California’s dry summers. Where, Shaffer wondered, do these federally endangered salamanders take refuge from the heat? 

The California tiger salamander
The California tiger salamander is one of many species whose conservation is informed by studies done at the UC Natural Reserve System. Photo: Lobsang Wangdu

To find out, Shaffer studied salamanders at the NRS’s Jepson Prairie Reserve in Solano County for more than a decade. His discovery: grown salamanders really get around. Though less than eight inches long from nose to tail, these amphibians may trek more than a mile to find a bunkable burrow. In the safety of a cool ground squirrel or gopher hole, they can tough out triple-digit summer temperatures.

“The average person spends about the same fraction of their year in the shower as a tiger salamander spends in a pond,” Shaffer says.

Shaffer’s discovery has had a major impact on California tiger salamander management. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires that both upland grasslands and breeding ponds must be protected in habitat conservation plans for the species.

Learn more about how Shaffer and other researchers use NRS reserves to preserve vulnerable plants and animals in our new video Science to safeguard species.

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