This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern.
Something is afoot in Romania’s province of Transylvania, and it has nothing to do with Twilight. In a paper published recently in Biological Conservation, researchers from Romania, Germany and the Netherlands spent nine years studying populations of various species of newts, frogs and toads in 54 ponds in the Saxon area of Southern Transylvania. Despite the conventional notion that human settlements and agricultural land use practices are associated with negative effects on amphibians and other wildlife, the scientists found that Romania’s traditional land use practices were “largely negligible” when it came to their impact on wildlife populations.
In addition, “natural” landscapes investigated in the study, such as forests and wetlands, scored only marginally higher than the traditionally managed agricultural areas when it came to amphibian species richness. However, Romania’s recent membership to the European Union will likely move Romania away from its traditional agricultural practices. As a result, the authors urged Central and Eastern European countries that have recently joined the EU to avoid repeating the mistakes of the West; that is, they recommend leaving room for wildlife in their development plans.
Farmers in the traditionally managed areas do not use chemicals or intensive machinery, practices that seem negatively impact amphibian population health. This could be good news for conservation plans, as well as the 10 amphibian species in the surveyed ponds—including the Great Crested Newt and the Yellow Bellied Toad, both of which are protected in the EU—as it indicates that wildlife refuges are likely unnecessary within the current land use plan.
However, one factor that seemed to have a large impact on the health of amphibian populations was the proximity of roads—especially those with a high volume of traffic—to the ponds that serve as an important component of the amphibians’ habitat.
“Roads have a direct negative effect on many species of amphibians, which can get run over by cars,” explained Tibor Hartel from Babeş-Bolyai University in Romania in a press release. “But roads also have an indirect impact, for example by the destruction and isolation of the critical habitats for amphibians such as breeding, summering and overwintering habitats.” This is where the good news ends—at least for the amphibians and conservation biologists.
On January 1, 2007, Romania became a member of the EU, a membership that, with its economic development, brings infrastructure expansion and more intensive land use. While some of Romania’s citizens likely consider the nation’s newfound status as an upper-middle-income country to be a positive step, to others, this development could potentially create a landscape that is a far cry from the traditional land use management that, in some locations, has been in place for centuries.
“For many [Central and Eastern European] regions,” explains the paper, “joining the EU will lead to more intensive land use and infrastructure expansion. And that in turn will result in the fragmentation of the landscape and the general deterioration of the remaining habitats.”
So what is at stake? According to the authors of the study, the biological richness of Central and Eastern European countries, and the benefits that come with it, could be at risk. The researchers call for a balance between Romania’s interest in infrastructure development and agricultural revenue, and the beneficial environmental effects of low intensity land use. They emphasize the need for a conservation plan that includes maintaining some degree of traditional land management.
“This presents a challenge,” the authors assert, “that may be seen as much as an opportunity to not repeat mistakes from the past as to find new approaches in conservation biology.”
Molly Taylor earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Chinese Language and Culture from the College of William & Mary. She has served as the California Regional Program Coordinator for Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, a program of the Jane Goodall Institute, and has interned with ABC news. She has also participated in archaeological and paleontological digs as well as a primatology study.
Photo Credit: Tilo Arnhold/ UFZ