A Buckhead-based conservation group says it has scored a win in its effort to save a native species of newt that is in danger of going extinct.

The Amphibian Foundation this month was able to successfully breed the striped newts for the first time, founder Mark Mandica said.

“This is really our first native, captive breeding success,” he said.

Mark Mandica, founder of the Buckhead-based Amphibian Foundation, holds a crested gecko, one of the reptiles and amphibians housed and shown off by the group. (Evelyn Andrews)

The newt has been bred in at least one other facility in the past, but the foundation has been working to breed the species for less than a year, he said. The success is “a huge step towards that goal” of introducing a new population of newts into the wild, Mandica said.

The foundation started in Mandica’s basement and since 2016 has occupied a sprawling space in the Blue Heron Nature Preserve at 4055 Roswell Road. Several research labs and holding areas for animals are downstairs. Upstairs are the offices and the tanks for snakes, lizards, the newly hatched striped newts and many other animals.

The foundation has four conservation programs for the flatwoods salamander, gopher frog, striped newt and tiger salamander.

The foundation will eventually release populations of those species into the wild into controlled and monitored habitats in the Southeast, Mandica said.

“The goal for all of our priority projects is to release these animals back in the wild,” he said.

Mark Mandica, the founder of the Amphibian Foundation, stands in front a several tanks holding a variety of reptile and amphibian species used for research and education at the organization’s headquarters at the Blue Heron Nature Preserve. (Evelyn Andrews)

It hasn’t tried to breed flatwoods salamanders yet; the gopher frogs they have are too young; and they are still trying to build a big tiger salamander population, he said.

Almost 40 percent of the world’s amphibian species —which are cold-blooded vertebrates including frogs, toads, newts and salamanders — have been documented as in decline or already extinct, often caused by urban development and climate changes, Mandica said.

Flatwoods salamanders are one of the most endangered, having suffered a 90 percent reduction in population since 2000, placing them at imminent risk of extinction in the next five to 10 years, according to the foundation.

Despite being named the Amphibian Foundation, the organization also houses several types of reptiles, including turtles, snakes and lizards, mostly for the camps and educational programs the foundation holds throughout the year at the foundation headquarters and other locations for children and adults. The foundation is not open to the public and is not open for visits like a zoo, however.

Two tiger striped monkey frogs sit on leaves in their tank. (Evelyn Andrews)

The foundation owns a variety of snakes, including an albino burmese python and an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which they use for the snake handling classes.

They also have several species of poisonous frogs they use for the children’s camps. The frogs can only make poison when eating a natural diet. On a captive diet, they are harmless, Mandica said.

The foundation counts the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources among its research partners. It also works with Zoo Atlanta on its gopher frog conservation program.

A Smallwood’s anole gets a ride on Mandica’s arm. (Evelyn Andrews)

Mandica recommends residents make their backyards more amphibian-friendly, including by not removing fallen leaves from the ground and installing devices that helps amphibians trapped in a swimming pool get out.

People can also join a reporting program that has residents keep track of the amphibians they see in their backyard so agencies can use those records for conservation programs, Mandica said.

The foundation moved to Blue Heron, a sprawling wildlife campus that also holds the headquarters the Atlanta Audubon Society and the Da Vinci International School, in late 2016 shortly after Mandica founded it.

Mandica founded the organization after leaving his previous research job at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in its amphibian conservation program when the program was closed. He kept much of his research and amphibians in his basement at his home in Decatur while looking for a new location.

The foundation was set in 2016 to be mostly funded by the federal government, but when the administration changed in early 2017, the funding for foundation was mostly cut, Mandica said. Some funding did eventually come, but later and less than expected.

The organization, which is run by four staff members and 28 volunteers and interns, is now mostly funded through other grants, donations and the revenue from children’s camps and classes.

“We’ve had to get creative,” he said.

An albino Burmese python lies in its tank at the Amphibian Foundation. The snake is used for educational classes. (Evelyn Andrews)

Because of the funding changes, Mandica has not taken a paycheck since starting the foundation, he said.

“Obviously, that’s not why anyone would do this,” he said.

Mandica had always been interested in amphibians, but didn’t see many in his home state of New Jersey. While at college at the University of Miami, he learned not much is known about amphibians.

“That’s when I started my journey,” he said.

But the foundation is working on significantly expanding its educational programs and developing a model for those programs to fully fund the foundation.

It’s already working on expanding its summer camps, which have been popular, he said. The camps started in one location two years ago, and this summer will be held at five locations.

Mandica’s long-term goals are to start new conservation programs for other species, eventually serving the global amphibian community.

Mandica said it is possible that North America has never had a single amphibian species go extinct, and he doesn’t want that to start now.

“They are vital as prey and as a predator,” he said.

For more information, visit amphibianfoundation.org.

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