Frequently Asked Questions about SPARCnet for Educators

created by Alexa Warwick, Sean Sterrett and Brett Amy Thelen & updated July 2023 

Big Picture

  1. What is SPARCnet?
    • The Salamander Population and Adaptation Research Collaboration Network (‘SPARCnet’) refers to the network of scientists and educators collaborating in a long-term research project to advance our understanding of environmental change on salamander ecology through a replicated plot study design (see photo) across a broad geographic area (read more details on our Research page). By working with K-12 teachers, nature centers, and college/university faculty, SPARCnet also develops meaningful curricula that engage students in authentic research practices (read more on our Education page).
  1. What is required for getting involved in SPARCnet?
    • On paper, SPARCnet plots are really simple: pieces of wood sitting on the forest floor. First you select a plot location and set up 50 boards per plot in a grid, which requires acquiring lumber, cutting it to size, transporting the boards to your plot, arranging them in a grid, and labeling them. Then after waiting for the boards to settle in place (ideally for three months or as short as one month), you survey for salamanders at least three times each in spring and in fall, and submit the data annually through an online portal at
  1. What does it mean to ‘survey’ salamanders in a plot?
    • Surveying for salamanders involves flipping over each board in a plot and recording how many salamanders you find, as well as a few other details about each salamander (such as which board they were found under, whether they’re lead-back vs. red-striped) and basic environmental data (such as air and soil temperature). At some plots, captured salamanders are also marked and released in order to track recapture rates over time, though most SPARCnet plots at K-12 schools and nature centers do not take this extra step, as it’s much more involved than simple counts. 
  1. What kind of salamanders are the focus of SPARCnet?
    • Although you are free to record any amphibian species that you find under your coverboards, the Eastern Red-backed Salamander (RBS; Plethodon cinereus) is the focus of research involved in SPARCnet. The reason for this is that RBS are:
      • Common (abundant and wide ranging – see range map below). This is the most commonly detected salamander found in forest floor ecosystems in the Northeastern United States.
      • Ultimate indicators of forest health. Due to its abundance, high site fidelity (that is, they might stay in the same small area their whole life) and range of habitat tolerance, this species is often considered an indicator of forest health declines.
      • Easily detectable. Standard coverboard and natural cover surveys (checking under logs, etc.) are very easy techniques used to detect and sample these organisms.
      • Hidden gems. Although they are incredibly common, most people do not see or think about woodland salamanders because they’re often out of sight or underground. These salamanders represent a small portion of the hidden biodiversity in forest floors, yet comprise a majority of the biomass of vertebrates in terrestrial ecosystems.
  1. What information can we learn from surveying for salamanders?
    • Survey plots in which salamanders are counted and their morphotype (lead-back or red-striped) is recorded are ways to learn about the population over time. First, if you find salamanders consistently, then we know they’re present at your site. You may also find other vertebrate species under the boards! Second, the proportion of the two morphotypes may indicate differences in the biotic characteristics of your plot (different plant communities or predators) or abiotic characteristics (temperature, soil moisture). Most importantly, the plot design allows us to have repeated count data (at least 3 surveys over the season) to be used in statistical models (called N-mixture models) to learn about the population in the absence of more intensely collected data.
  1. What if we don’t find any salamanders?
    • First, these salamanders are very common, so it’s likely you will find some! If not, it’s possible the habitat isn’t appropriate for your plots, you visited your plots at a bad time, or the salamanders simply weren’t there for some random reason. If this happens more than once and student engagement is a priority, you might want to consider re-locating your plots. 
  1. How much will it cost to set up and maintain our plots? 
    • Materials costs for SPARCnet plots will vary depending on your goals and resources. You can use this spreadsheet to pick and choose the items that you will need to set up and survey your plots. The items are broken up into essential, mark-recapture and temperature collecting items, and optional experimental items. Note: Mark-recapture plots are sites where each individual salamander is measured and marked with Visible Implant Elastomer before returning it back to the coverboard under which it was found. This method is typically done in academic settings, so likely will not apply to plots at nature centers or K-12 schools.
  1. How much time will it take?
    • Attaining materials and setting up the plots take a bit of work, but plot maintenance is fairly minimal after that. Time to survey plots will vary depending on how far you have to walk to get there, but typically 15-20 minutes at each plot is sufficient for count data collection. Transcribing data into a digital spreadsheet and uploading that data to our online data submission site also requires some time (~10 minutes per plot).
  1. Who should we contact if we have more questions?
    • If you would like to be added to the SPARCnet listserv or have questions about data submission, educational materials, or any other aspects of joining SPARCnet, email

Setting Up & Maintaining Plots

  1. How many plots should we set up?
    • Ideally a research site includes six plots, each with 50 boards. At minimum, you just need one plot; however, we recommend at least 2-3 plots in which you collect count data to increase the utility of the data for research purposes. The number of plots may be limited by your available habitat. The number of plots will determine how many boards you need to purchase (50 per plot), but always purchase extra boards to account for deterioration over time. Remember that your coverboards are meant to act as decomposing pieces of wood in a forest floor, so some boards may split or crack and will need to be replaced on occasion (typically every 3-5 years, depending on local conditions).
  1. How do we pick where to put our plots (habitat type, forest characteristics, topography, human activity, etc.)?
    • Flat topography within a deciduous forest is best, though it might be challenging to find a site with enough flat, open terrain (few trees) for an entire grid of 50 boards. Strive to find a site with minimal human disturbance (for instance, out of view of well-used trails) and with low likelihood of flooding. You may also wish to pre-survey for salamanders at a potential site by turning over natural cover (logs and stones), just to make sure salamanders are generally present in that habitat.
  1. How do we set up our plot(s)?
    • Setting up a plot involves transporting your boards to the location, measuring out a grid, placing the boards along the grid (spaced 1 meter apart), clearing out the leaves and duff from beneath each board so it’s lying flush on the ground, and labeling each board with an ID code based on the grid (A1, A2, etc.) If you have more than one plot, it’s also helpful to record the plot ID on at least one board (for instance, A1) in each plot. You will also need to record some basic information about the plot, including latitude and longitude, and surrounding habitat information.
    • All of this is much easier with multiple people to help cut and transport coverboards, and then set up the plots. 
    • A plastic sled can be helpful for transporting boards. Other tools you will need for setting  up your plot include a measuring tape (for measuring out the grid), thick Sharpies (for labeling the boards), flagging (for marking the plot and your route to it), and a GPS unit or smartphone app (for recording the location of your plots).
    • It can also be helpful to set up a temperature logger at your site to regularly log air and soil temperatures. This requires setting your temperature loggers and downloading data every 8-12 months. If you have several plots that are relatively close together (within 150 meters of each other), then one data logger can represent that entire set of plots. 
    • Here’s a quick video showing how a SPARCnet plot might be set up:
  1. Should we include signage at the plots?
    • You can include signage where appropriate, to help deter vandalism. For example, you could post a laminated "Do not disturb" sign with contact info at each plot. There may be some instances where signage could draw unwanted attention. In those instances, instead of signs, you could write directly on some of the corner coverboards for each plot. (We recommend using shortened sample language). You can decide what’s best for your site.
    • Sample language: “Please do not move or remove these boards. They are part of a long-term salamander study being conducted by [your school or organization], in conjunction with the Salamander Population Adaptation Research Collaboration Network (SPARCnet). Questions? Please contact [your name & contact information]”
  1. How far in advance of our first survey should we set out the boards (at a minimum)?
    • We recommend that plots be set up 1-3 months before you’re planning to start surveys. The reason for this is that the salamanders are a bit picky about where they hang out. When the boards are in the forest floor, they will go through wetting and drying cycles and even begin to be invaded by fungi and bacteria, which will begin the process of decomposition. Salamanders prefer boards that have been in the forest floor for a while because they hold onto moisture well. 
  1. What kind of wood do we need for the coverboards? Is variation in wood type, thickness, or treatment okay?
    • SPARCnet sites use standardized coverboard material (Douglas fir), size (10 x 10 x 2 inches), and arrangement (10 by 5 grid) so that all participants are collecting information in the same way. Slight variations in these specifications are fine, especially when opportunistically gathering coverboard materials, but large variations may make comparisons between plots challenging. If at all possible, try to follow the suggestions. It is important that any lumber used to make coverboards be untreated with chemicals. 
  1. Where can we purchase materials?
    • Generally, you can purchase untreated lumber from a big box store or local lumberyard, and then cut it to size. Cutting the coverboards requires a miter saw. Some stores may be able to cut your lumber to size for you (though they may charge per cut). Standard coverboard dimensions are 10 x 10 x 2 inches.
    • Data loggers and pen thermometers can be purchased online. (See below for more information.)
  1. Do we need a data logger? If so, what kind do you recommend? How much does it cost?
    • Soil and ambient air temperature can tell us a lot about the ecology of salamanders, including the timing of surface activity. We use data loggers to understand the general trends and variability in air and soil temperature at a salamander study plot. It would be best to have an air and soil temperature logger at your plot, although it is not necessary. Temperature data loggers can range between $35-50 each. 
    • An alternative to this is to use a simple pen thermometer to measure soil and air temperature each time you survey your plots. Here is an example of an inexpensive model. 
  1. What kind of maintenance is required over time? 
    • Some maintenance of plots is required. Remember, the coverboards are meant to act as dead and decaying large woody debris, and they will eventually break down. Coverboards typically last 3-5 years on the ground. For this reason, it’s good to have an extra 10-15 boards that you can have “pre-weathering” (that is, hanging out in the rain, cold, heat, etc.) in the woods near your plots.
    • The labels that you put on the boards to indicate the row and column may need to be updated when fading (once a year or so). 
    • Additionally, boards can be shuffled around by people or wild animals, so it’s a good idea to check on your plots before the start of your surveys each spring and fall. 
    • If you use temperature loggers, the data will need to be downloaded every 8-12 months. 
    • You’ll also need to remove debris and the occasional downed tree from your plots after storms, replace any flagging that marks the paths to the plots, and replace the laminated "Do not disturb" signs at each plot, as needed.

Data Collection & Sharing

  1. How often do we need to survey the plots, and when?
    • SPARCnet plots are surveyed during both spring and fall, but dates will vary according to your latitude. Generally, plan on mid-March to May for spring surveys and mid-September to early November for fall surveys. We ask that your plots be surveyed a minimum of 3 times each spring and 3 times each fall, at least 7 days apart.
  1. Why do we need to wait at least a week in between surveys?
    • Salamanders use coverboards and natural cover as refuge. When you lift a coverboard or piece of large woody debris, you change the environment or microhabitat underneath that object (it would be like removing the roof from your home), making it less suitable for the salamanders and thus less likely for them to stay or recolonize. So, it is important to give salamanders time to re-inhabit these cover objects again as they regain that environment over time. For natural cover object areas, it’s especially important to replace cover objects to their original place. Therefore, we recommend at least seven days between sampling events without any disturbance of the survey areas.
  1. Do we need to limit data collection to certain weather conditions (temperature, precipitation, etc.)?
    • Yes, your data collection should take place during a particular window of time during the spring (usually late March through early May) and fall (usually late September through early November). This is the period of time when Red-backed Salamanders are at the surface and likely to be eating, mating, or moving around to do either of these activities. Avoid sampling on days that are extreme or outside of the normal for that time of year. (Unseasonably cold or warm days should be avoided.) Finally, collecting data in the heavy rain can be challenging and can influence your data quality (and it isn’t safe to be outdoors in stormy weather!), so it’s also best to avoid these conditions. 
  1. How long does it take to survey a single plot?
    • The length of time to complete a salamander count on a standard 50-board plot can vary depending upon how many salamanders are observed. Plan for about 15-20 minutes per plot, but know that it could take longer if you find many salamanders. 
  1. What supplies are needed to survey?
    • Not much! Printed data sheet(s), clipboards, pencils, and thermometer (if using). 
  1. What should we do with our data? Is there a standardized spreadsheet or data submission form?
    • You may wish to keep a spreadsheet for your own records, but for use by SPARCnet, all data should be submitted via the online forms at In order to submit your data, you will need to register for an account. Please contact Adrianne Brand ( with questions.

Classroom Considerations

  1. Are there existing educational materials we can use? 
    • We have developed lesson plans for undergraduate instructors that could be modified for other audiences. In the future, we hope to have more K-12 lesson plans available. Email us at if you develop some and would be willing to share them with other instructors via the SPARCnet website!
  1. What's the maximum group size for surveying with students? How do you recommend dividing up tasks?
    • There is a limit to how many students can participate. One successful approach that has worked for K-12 classes has been to have students line up after approaching the plot. Then, usher the first five students down the first row of five boards (because there are 50 boards in a 5x10m grid). Those initial five students check boards and report the counts of each morphotype (and/or size if you are recording this) to the instructor or another person who is recording the data. After this, the first five students move to the end of the line. After all the data is successfully recorded for the first row, then the next set of five students moves to the second row. This procedure ensures that all students get to check 2-4 rows (depending on how many students are involved). It seems that the maximum group size for this type of activity might be ~25 students because this would allow for each student to check two boards and report data. For larger groups or younger students, it is nice to have two teachers involved: one to help with data collection and one to direct students and make sure that all animals are cared for during the sampling.
    • Another approach is to divide your group into five teams, with each team responsible for checking two short rows (10 boards each). Within each team, 2-3 students can be responsible for checking the boards and one student can be responsible for data recording. You can also have each team report out to the larger group once all the boards have been sampled, and have a teacher keep a “master” data sheet that is used for data submission.
  1. Are there any safety concerns when surveying?
    • Being outdoors is an opportunity to discuss responsible recreation and safety considerations with students, such as respecting the property boundaries (minimizing off-trail walking), avoiding health hazards (e.g., poison ivy, ticks, venomous snakes), and stopping invasive species spread (see ‘PlayCleanGo’ for some simple steps to follow). The salamanders themselves are unlikely to pose any risk to students, but salamanders can be injured by improper handling. Also, be aware of overhead hazards, such as falling limbs, and avoid visiting during inclement weather (thunderstorms, etc.).
  1. Is it okay to touch the salamanders?
    • Generally we recommend as little handling of salamanders as possible. You may use this experience as an opportunity to discuss appropriate behaviors around wildlife. If salamanders are handled, use clean hands (no sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer) or clean gloves. This species of salamander is lungless and relies on their moist skin to breathe; thus, it’s critical to avoid them drying out. Never grab a salamander by the tail; they may drop their tail as a predator defense mechanism if they are grabbed or handled roughly. Instead, hold them around the middle with gentle pressure. For close examination or taking measurements, we suggest temporarily putting salamanders in a clean Ziploc bag (sandwich-size works well) or Tupperware container. Finally, whenever salamanders are picked up, always return them to exactly where they were originally found.
  1. How can we see data from other schools?
    • For now, we do not have a way to share data. If you would like to see which other schools are participating, please check out the list of partners on our website.