Environment
10:00 am
Fri August 2, 2013

Humans and Salamanders Lay Claim to Former Ammo Plant

Neotenic tiger salamander in Badger Army Ammuntion Plant reservoir.  Photo taken May 10, 2013
Neotenic tiger salamander in Badger Army Ammuntion Plant reservoir. Photo taken May 10, 2013
Credit John Janzen

Many groups want a voice in the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area's design, while salamanders already have settled in.

Over a series of decades, workers produced more than one billion pounds of ammunition in various forms at a massive plant 30 miles northwest of Madison.

The Badger Army Ammunition Plant – locals simply call “Badger” – took shape during World War II and displaced 80 farm families. The operation remained “on line" well into the 1990s. Now, its 7,000 plus acres are being cleaned up and parceled off - one chunk for USDA dairy forage research, another for the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Wisconsin’s DNR holds the largest portion that butts up to Devil’s Lake State Park and the Wisconsin River.

Earlier this week, area residents filled a nearby arts center to hear what the state agency has in mind for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. One proposal incorporates a shooting rage and ATV trails proponents say will encourage more users onto the property. Concerns bubbled within the crowd - how would those “special uses” blend with opportunities to blend recreation with education and research?

While debate over its future has escalated, scientists have quietly been at work to learn what remains of the flora and fauna of what “Badger” once was - a mosaic of tallgrass prairie and savanna. A Milwaukee-based biologist made an unlikely discovery there in a “man-made” habitat.

The year was 1993. At the time Gary Casper headed herpetology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. He, along with other biologists were tapped to inventory creatures living in the Baraboo Hills area – that’s the region shared by the Badger Army Ammunition Plant.

Casper says their surveys yielded good stuff HIS finds included.....

“Some interest reptiles – bull snakes, black rat snakes, timber rattle snakes; there were four-toad salamanders along the slope. And these are all relatively rare species in decline. Other teams were studying birds and I know they found a number of rare bird species that were breeding on site.”

Casper remembers stepping onto the “not yet decommissioned” ammo plant as a tad unnerving.
 

Whether salamanders jumped or fell in, there's no way out of the Badger reservoir.
Whether salamanders jumped or fell in, there's no way out of the Badger reservoir.
Credit G Casper

“They had a lot of explosive stuff around and in order to be safe they had these huge water reservoirs built into the side of the bluff. Think of a giant swimming pool about 20 feet deep and one of these reservoirs was treated water, chlorinated, and the other was raw water.”

Resident maintenance workers suggested Casper take a look at the latter because they had seen salamanders in it.

“And sure enough I could see some; and this was in the early spring.”

Casper was certain they were tiger salamanders surfacing, grabbing a gulp for air and diving back into the deep pool. He’s seen his share of the creature, starting during his boyhood. They used to turn up in his window well in east central Minnesota.

“They’re kind of brownish-back body color with yellowish spots all over.” And, can live up to fifteen years.

Back to the reservoir. Casper wasn’t able to catch any of the critters.

“So, I went home and found some scuba divers who were willing to go in there and collect them for me. So they had to dress up in their dry suits, because the water is like 40 degrees.”

The divers surfaced with a catch of salamander larvae.



“So we put them in a bucket and I said yup, these are typical tiger salamanders.”

Typical adult tiger salamanders live on land. They are nighttime foragers and burrow in grassy and woody spots. When spring time comes. they head for water to breed and lay their eggs, later emerging to live their dry habitat.

Casper lugged the bucket of larvae back to his Milwaukee lab for closer inspection.

"By the time I got them back into the lab, I realized some of them had started laying eggs in the buckets. And I thought what in the world are larva doing laying eggs.”

Casper discovered the water-bound salamanders were frozen mid-development but with full reproductive capacities. The phenomenon is called “neotony”.

“So we refer to these as neotenic. So they retain their gills like the larva have and they look like larva but reproductively they mature and are able to breed.”

This is scientifically a big deal; while neotony has been chronicled occasionally among tiger salamanders WEST of the Mississippi but Casper says, had never been documented east of the Mississippi River.

Casper and other scientists returned to the Badger site to inspect the habitat more closely.
 

Larvae that hatched from neotene eggs in the Badger reservoir.  Scientists believe they are like "normal" tiger salamander larvae, which hatch from terrestrial populations that breed in ponds.
Larvae that hatched from neotene eggs in the Badger reservoir. Scientists believe they are like "normal" tiger salamander larvae, which hatch from terrestrial populations that breed in ponds.
Credit Michael Mossman

“We went back and looked at the reservoir and decided that any salamanders in the surrounding forest could easily fall in here and once they fall in they can’t get out because there’s a vertical concrete lip around it; so they’re trapped in here.”
 

The salamanders in the Badger reservoir evolved into a self-sustaining system.

And yet at any given time, scientists estimate they number over 1,000 and grow as long as a foot. What are they feeding on?

“Other animals that fall in or are blown in and each other, there’s a lot of cannibalism going on. But they’ve evolved into this self-sustaining system.”

Scientists have more questions than answers – for instance when and how did the first “generation” take hold? Did they fall in or gravitate to the reservoir when spawning season called?

“It’s a unique thing that hasn’t been found anywhere before. Yes, other populations further west and some we suspect now elsewhere in Wisconsin occasionally are neotenic, but we’ve never seen anything like this where it’s a permanent situation for the entire population.”

No matter how the Badger landscape evolves – with or without a shooting range or ATVs – its unlikely the reservoir will survive. Casper says he is not the only scientist who thinks it should be preserved.

“Many of us have made recommendations to the DNR to preserve the system.”

The salamander dates back to the days of the dinosaur and has managed to survive. Casper says there are lessons to be learned in their story.

This weekend, biologists from seven Midwest states are gathering in the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in Port Washington to discuss the conservation of native amphibians and reptiles. The “unique case of human induced evolution in tiger salamanders” at Badger is among the topics the scientists will discuss.

The public can submit ideas on what the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area should look like to the DNR. The deadline is August 30th.