Wearing a headlamp and chest waders, Department of Environmental Protection endangered species biologist Dave Golden walks carefully through a frigid pond in Cape May County on a nighttime search for salamanders and frogs.
It’s an eerie, almost otherworldly scene as the beam from Golden’s headlamp dances across the surface of the pond and trees along the pond’s edges. Chorus frogs and spring peepers chirp raucously, apparently unfazed by Golden’s presence.
Every now and then, Golden dips a net into the murky water, scooping up large tiger salamanders and tiny frogs that he takes to a clearing on the bank. There he swabs samples of their skin, especially the sensitive areas around their noses and underbellies, before returning the animals to the water.
Golden is looking for evidence of a potentially devastating disease known as a chytrid fungus that is threatening populations of amphibian species worldwide.
This spring, the DEP’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program is teaming up with Montclair State University and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey in a project to determine if the disease is having any impact on New Jersey’s frogs, toads and salamanders.
It is the first broad-based scientific study of chytrid fungus in New Jersey, where the greatest threats amphibians have faced to date have been habitat loss and being run over by vehicles.
“Our species are definitely susceptible to the disease; almost all amphibians are,” said Golden, a 10-year DEP veteran. “This is the first step. Right now we need to get information to see if it is a problem here. We need to establish baseline data.”
Through May, the researchers will visit amphibian habitat in all 21 counties. Their goal is to collect at least 2,000 samples from all of New Jersey’s 16 frog and toad species and at least four of the state’s salamander species.
The project is funded by a grant from the federal State Wildlife Grants Program, the wildlife check off on state income tax returns, and sales and renewals of “Conserve Wildlife” license plates.
Montclair and Conserve Wildlife are providing field staff to help with sampling. Montclair is doing the laboratory analyses.
Several years ago, Kirsten Monsen-Collar and Lisa Hazard, assistant professors of biology at Montclair, took an interest in the possible impacts of the disease but realized there was no sampling data for New Jersey. They had found the fungus among amphibians at the New Jersey School of Conservation, a field station the university operates in Sussex County, and approached