MEDFORD — When a group of about 50 students, teachers, biologists, and others gathered outside Medford High School recently, it was now or never.
“If anyone wants to get a picture of the salamanders, this is your last chance before we turn them loose,” science teacher Ivy Carnabucci announced.
Several students excitedly peered into a plastic container and snapped pictures with their cellphones.
Then the entourage crossed the street and followed biologist Bryan Windmiller single file down a dirt trail into the Middlesex Fells Reservation.
Why all the fanfare over salamanders? Because the species being released — the marbled salamander — is not only Massachusetts’ rarest salamander, it hasn’t been seen in the Middlesex Fells since the 1930s, Windmiller said.
About 50 juvenile marbled salamanders were captured as aquatic larvae in the Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts last fall and raised at Medford High and by Windmiller and other biologists over the winter.
Thanks to the efforts of Windmiller’s Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, biologists Joe Martinez, Matt Gage, and the Stone Zoo’s John Berkholtz, along with students and teachers at Medford High, the amphibians are being reintroduced into the 2,575-acre Fells, which spreads into Medford, Malden, Melrose, Stoneham, and Winchester.
“This project will help students and teachers who participate, and all of us who are interested, look at the tremendous potential of urban wildernesses like the Fells as areas where we can help heal and restore some of the past losses to our local biodiversity,” Windmiller said.
“We’re just high school students, but if you want to get involved there’s a way to do it,” said Catarina Barros-Borreia, a 10th-grader at Medford High. “And it doesn’t have to be through a big organization. It can be through your school.”
Named for its black and white pattern, the marbled salamander has largely been wiped out from northeastern Massachusetts, Windmiller said, and is not common anywhere in the state. He said it is the only salamander listed by the state as “threatened.” They disappeared from the Fells because of habitat loss, he said.
Raising juveniles in captivity for release in the wild — a process called head-starting — gives them a jump on the competition, Windmiller said.
“We should be able to release salamanders that are a fair bit larger and thus more fit to survive to adulthood than we would if we simply transferred them directly from the donor population to the Fells,” he said.
Or, put more simply by Gage, “The bigger you are, the less stuff can eat you.”
Windmiller said possible predators in the Fells include garter snakes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, barred owls, and short-tailed shrews.
The 2-inch-long salamanders released May 25 were about twice as big as they would have been if they had grown up in the wild, Windmiller said. Adult marbled salamanders grow to a length of 3 to 5 inches.
Head-starting salamanders in the classroom had the added benefit of teaching students about science and conservation, Windmiller said.
Carnabucci, who was in charge of the program at Medford High, said several classes — from freshman to senior AP biology students — were involved with caring for the 19 salamanders they raised.
Students learned how to collect and analyze data, and were involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the salamanders. This entailed feeding them crickets and worms, weighing the salamanders to chart their growth, helping to keep their cages clean, and learning about the amphibians’ life cycle.
“It elevates the current curriculum . . . to another level,” Carnabucci said. “Instead of just reading books, kids get to touch and see things.”
Jodie Driscoll, another Medford High science teacher, said it was also valuable in exposing kids to a great resource: the Middlesex Fells.
“A lot of the kids hadn’t even set foot in the Fells,” Driscoll said. “It’s a way to introduce them to the outdoors and to the value of conservation and helping a threatened species.”
Rocco Cieri, science coordinator at Medford High, said the marbled salamander project is ultimately about students getting engaged in nature.
“There are so many reports of kids being nature-deprived,” he said. “We have this extraordinary resource steps away from our school. The kids are engaged in something they might read about: restoring endangered and threatened species. It’s a powerful learning tool.”
Back on the trail, Windmiller pointed out vernal pools, small, temporary ponds that fill with water in the fall and spring, and are used by some salamander and frog species to lay their eggs,
Windmiller said marbled salamanders lay their eggs in the pools in the early fall, when they are dry. Juveniles leave and live in the forest under rocks and logs.
A group of several students and teachers gathered a little ways off the trail. Carnabucci reached into the plastic container and removed a salamander.
“Is that Bruce?” one of the students asked, referring to the name they had given the salamander.
“Yes,” Carnabucci replied. “It’s Bruce.”
Carnabucci set the salamander down, but it started to walk away from the log. Several students yelled “Wrong way!” With a little guidance from Carnabucci, Bruce reversed direction and crawled under the log. The crowd burst into applause.
Fifteen salamanders were released near Medford High, and the rest were released elsewhere in the Fells. Next year, Windmiller wants to expand the project to other schools, and plans on releasing marbled salamanders for five to 10 years, with a goal of a breeding population of about 200 in the Fells.
“I’m really happy they’re here,” said Elizabeth Passanisi, a 10th-grader at Medford High. “I weighed them when they were little. I want to come back next year and try to find them.”