Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The following is guest post by Brittany Sumner, a senior at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

I am currently a senior in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology at Clemson University.  I have spent the last three months participating in a Creative Inquiry (CI) project that focuses on the effects of exurbanization on salamanders in the Clemson area.  This Creative Inquiry really interested me because my passion is endangered species and human impacts on wildlife.  The research we are doing shows how exurbanization could be affecting salamander populations in first order streams, which goes right along with my interest in human impacts on wildlife. 
Our Creative Inquiry’s outings and research was led by graduate student Nathan Weaver.  We started out having weekly meetings that focused on gathering background information and learning about salamander ecology.  We would read and discuss different scientific journals that we found on stream ecology, amphibian ecology, and impacts of urbanization. Reading journals helped us get prepared for field work and helped us to understand the proper way to set up a research project.   After we were well versified we picked out streams within the Clemson area to start sampling in.  We had one control and four urban sites. 

Most people do not know what exurbanization is. Well, exurbaniztion is when people from an urban area move to a rural area but still continue with an urban lifestyle.  When people move to rural areas they usually don’t realize the impacts they can have on the environment.  Ecosystems are very sensitive and one change can completely alter the makeup of an ecosystem.  Constructing houses in rural areas can result in increases in sedimentation, erosion, salinity, and fertilizer pollution in the local streams.  Debris and litter also start entering an ecosystem when is becomes urbanized.  All of these things in large quantities can be detrimental to amphibian populations and their development. 
Salamanders are amazing in the fact that they are indicators for a healthy ecosystem.  Salamanders have permeable skin that allows oxygen and other biological components to enter and exit their bodies constantly.  This is a perfect survival tool in wet environments but it also makes them extra susceptible to being impacted by pollutants and climate change.  For this reason, healthier streams usually have a higher diversity and number of salamanders.  Salamanders are very important to a balanced ecosystem, because they keep the insect and arthropod populations balanced.  Salamanders are a dominant keystone predator and it is very important that we do everything in our power to protect them. 

For my research I looked into water quality and its effects on the number of salamanders within a stream.  From going out in the field, and the research I have conducted, it is clear that salamander populations are impacted by the water quality in their ecosystem.  In all the exurban streams there were huge amounts of litter all throughout the water and along the banks.  From our data it is not clear how much salinity, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH and water temperature affect populations, but hopefully once more data is collected next semester there will be a better indicate on of how populations are being impacted.  Even though there are not conclusive results from our data yet, other literature has made it clear that good water quality is essential for a healthy salamander population.  Next semester I would really like to look into the amounts of litter in each stream and see if that has any effects on salamander populations and diversity. 
This creative inquiry has given me very valuable field experience and helped me learn how to conduct research.  In the world of Wildlife and Fisheries Biology it is very important to not only have good academics but to also have a lot of field experience.  From personal experience I can tell you that I have learned more through field work than I have in my classes.  You can learn about techniques all day, but you will never fully understand them until you get the hands on experience. Creative inquiries in general teach you a hard work ethic and give you a chance to do something you are passionate about. 

I am excited to continue my work with salamanders and learn even more from this CI.  I am very thankful to have found a CI that helped me discover my passion for salamanders and their role they play in the natural world.  The wildlife in this world play a vital part in our survival.  It is essential that we love and respect the earth and all the plants and animals that abide there.  Hopefully this Creative Inquiry and our research can help us to communicate and educate the public, so that they can help in the restoration and protection of salamanders. 

Our changing streams

The following is guest post by Maddy Feiste, a freshman at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

We may not always realize it at first glance, but the natural world is always changing; little by little, and over long periods of time, but it is changing nonetheless, and a lot of that is completely natural. However, as people with growing needs, desires, and technological advancements, we are changing the land around us faster than ever before and some of the first places affected by these changes are streams.

My name is Maddy Feiste and I am a freshman student at Clemson University participating in the creative inquiry Landscape Ecology of the Appalachia. In this program, a handful of us undergraduate students are working under graduate student Nathan Weaver to study the effects of urban  development on stream health. More specifically, we’re looking at the populations of salamanders that live in those streams. Salamanders are an important part of the ecosystem in that they are the main predators of insect larvae that grow and mature in streams. They’re very effective keep insect populations under control by reducing the number of larvae that survive to adulthood. Salamanders are also important to us because many species serve as indicators of water pollution. For example, a healthy stream will show many different species of salamanders, while a polluted stream may only show one species of a highly tolerant salamander, or even no salamanders at all. By surveying salamanders in various streams, we can develop a good understanding of the stream’s overall health and the effects that nearby exurbanization may be having on the water quality.

Fortunately for us, the southern Appalachian Mountains are a biodiversity hotspot for salamanders, making it the perfect place for us to study these valuable organisms. The same mountains, however, have been an increasingly popular tourist destination spot for people seeking what they consider to be the ideal getaway that brings them closer to nature. This idea of the peaceful mountain getaway may at first seem harmless or even beneficial, but the development involved brings us right to the problem of exurbanization. Exurbanization is a form of low-density development similar to urban sprawl. In exurbanization, houses and businesses are built farther apart in order to provide a more secluded feeling for the people living there, while still providing the services and amenities that would be available to them in a larger city. All of this widespread development can seriously endanger streams in the region by filling them with sediment from construction, as well as runoff from roads and fertilized landscaping. This semester we went on multiple sampling trips locally in order to assess how this type of development affected the streams in and around Clemson.
When gathering our data we began by testing the water quality in the streams, measuring dissolved oxygen, salinity, pH, temperature, and conductivity. We then moved on to survey the stream morphology, noting what percent of streambed was rock, gravel, pebbles, or sediment. This data became especially important to me as we developed our own personal projects. My particular topic has come to be streambed morphology and how salamander species abundance varies according to substrate differences between streams. As we continued to sample this semester, two important differences became clear in urban versus control streams, and that was that the urban streams had a high percentage of sediment, while our control streams located in the Clemson experimental forest almost always contained less sediment and more rock and gravel. The control streams also exhibited higher diversity of salamander species than the urban streams, as opposed to the urban streams, where we only ever found the very hardy southern two-lined salamander. Knowing this, I wanted to investigate more into why sediment bottom streams harbor fewer salamanders than rocky-bottomed ones. It may be that the more uniform sediment provides less habitat for salamanders and their prey than layered pebbles and rocks would, but only more research will tell for sure.

I’m very excited to continue this creative inquiry into next semester and gain a greater understanding of the relationships that salamanders share with their physical environment. Sedimentation is a well-known problem for streams and in many cases has been known to completely fill in streams so that they no longer exist. Runoff and storm water management are both environmental issues that I am passionate about and that I would like to continue to investigate further with this project. I think that next I would like to compare a stream near a town using conventional storm water management practices to a stream from an area using more sustainable practices. It would be interesting to see if there are very significant differences in the salamander diversity of the different locations. I look forward to writing about more of my findings in the coming spring!

Effects of urbanization on streams and salamanders

The following is guest post by Bonnie Miller, a junior at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

My name is Bonnie Miller and I am currently a Junior at Clemson University. I recently switched my major from Biosystems Engineering to Conservation Biology. After this switch I wanted to make connections within my new field and also figure out what real-world situations I might be interested in. At the recommendation of my advisor, I registered for a Creative Inquiry called “Landscape Ecology of Appalachia” which focuses on the effect of urbanization on streams and more specifically how salamander abundance and diversity may be affected.

A large portion of the class consists of excursions out in the field to gather data. Besides sampling a variety of streams for salamanders, we take other data such as the salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen content, and pH of the stream water. We take note of the canopy cover and streambank vegetation among many other pieces of data.

While a large part of the course is field work, there is also a personal project component. My project is on Basal Area and how it might be related to the salamander diversity of streams. Basal Area is an estimate of the amount of an area that is occupied by trees. With this information, you can get an idea of the canopy cover, light levels, and overall composition of the forest surrounding a stream. Typically the higher the Basal Area, the more adult trees there are in the area and the more shade present.

At every site we visit, we use a wedge prism tool to calculate the Basal Area for the land surrounding the stream. Along with this data, I am also looking at the diversity of salamanders we catch when we sample the stream. We identify each salamander and note whether it is an adult or larvae. I’d like to compare the Basal Area to the number of species of salamanders that were caught and also the number of Southern Two Lined salamander larvae that were found.

What can be learned from this? Well, salamanders have long been used a indicators of stream health. If the natural state of a stream has been altered (as it often is by urban development) salamander populations can show that. Salamanders are sensitive to disturbances in their ecosystem and have a large role that they play. Through looking at the number of species and which specific species are present, you can gather information on the overall health of the stream.

Basal Area is a good indicator of the health of the land directly surrounding the stream. Within areas of urbanization, the forest usually has been disturbed, which would result in a lower Basal Area. Though the urbanization may have initially occurred many years ago, it takes an immense amount of time for a forest to reach the same level health-wise as it was before the disturbance of urbanization.

Luckily, there has been a recent movement to pay more attention to the environment and reduce the negative effect that humans may impose on their surroundings. This Creative Inquiry and my personal project relate directly to those issues. The first step to solving these problems that humans may be creating in nature is figuring out what those problems are. Through research we can see what human or natural factors are altering the ecosystem and what we can do to maintain the balance. This balance is so very precarious and tweaking one small factor may tip the entire scale. Overall urbanization is spreading rapidly and the effects of this development may not be considered before it occurs. It is tremendously important to be aware of the delicate balance that is our natural world and to do what we can to prevent a negative impact on our precious planet.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stream food webs in an altered environment

The following is guest post by Briana Cairco, a freshman at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

My name is Briana Cairco, I’m a freshman wildlife and fisheries major and entomology minor at Clemson University in South Carolina. This semester I’ve have the wonderful opportunity to take a Creative Inquiry class studying the effects of exurbanization on salamanders in Appalachia. As you may or may not know, the Appalachian Mountains are home to more species of salamander than any other place on earth, so there is no better place to study salamanders than in our own backyard.

So, what is exurbanization? Exurbanization is basically urban sprawl, people like having the amenities of the city, but want to live in a more rural area. So, land outside of cities is developed to provide easy access to the city, and a more natural environment to live in. This process may be the best of both worlds for humans, but these exurban communities can decimate the ecosystem they’re in. These communities may not seem so bad at first glance, but when you consider the sedimentation from the construction, the runoff from fertilized lawns, the increased salinity from road salt, and so many other factors that impact the streams, the threat these communities pose to amphibians is very real. Our goal this semester is to sample streams with a varying exposure to these developments in order to determine the effects exurbanization has on the salamander population as a whole.

Within our group each person is conducting his or her own research on a related topic. I chose to research the relationships between species of macroinvertebrates and species of salamanders. I will be using the salamander data we get and collecting data on the variety of invertebrates and looking at any correlation between the two. Salamanders are the top predator in these streams that we are examining, so when their populations suffer it is safe to assume that the invertebrate community will change as well. Either they will increase because they aren't being hunted, or they will decrease because whatever is threatening the salamanders is threatening them too.

Certain species of both invertebrates and salamanders are more sensitive to environmental changes. When we look at the data between sites with different water quality readings it would be interesting to see if any of the species seem to be sensitive to particular variables. Between sites with similar water quality, results may show which invertebrate and salamander species have interdependent relationships. There are so many variables in these sites that it could be hard to say whether particular species have a special relationship, but it would be really interesting if for example, sites with caddis fly larvae as the predominant invertebrate also seemed to have the most black belly salamanders. Maybe this study could show if the salamanders have a favorite food, or it could just show which invertebrate and salamanders have similar habitat preferences.
The task is a little daunting since there are so many things out of our control, the invertebrate populations will be affected by the season, so I will have to take into account the breeding period for the species we find.  Also, the size of invertebrate is important a small stream could support thousands of tiny stonefly larvae, but obviously not as many hellgrammites. So instead of just comparing the numbers, I’ll need to compare changes in species abundance between sites.

I will be using this identification key from Auburn University to identify the invertebrates by order, then by their feeding group. There are four feeding groups; shredders, which rely on dead plant and animal material, scrapers/grazers, which eat living plant matter and algae, predators, which eat other invertebrates, and collectors/filterers, which filter fine material from the water.  Most stone fly larvae are shredders, except for families Perlidae, Chloroperlidae, and Perlodidae which are predatory, and have obvious physical differences. The mayfly larvae we will encounter will be collectors, except for family Heptageniidae which are scrapers, and are also easy to differentiate because they appear to have no head.  The caddis fly larvae are more difficult to differentiate so since the majority of species are scrapers, any caddis fly larvae will be classified as a scraper. The megalopterans (like hellgrammites) are predators; as are both dragonfly and damsel fly larvae. I think these feeding groups will be helpful in connecting stream quality and both salamander and invertebrate abundance.

I’m really excited to start sampling, and I haven’t seen any articles about the relationships between certain invertebrates and salamander species yet, so I have no idea what to expect.

Moving from the classroom to the field

The following is guest post by Will Gallman, a freshman at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

I am a freshman studying in the field of Wildlife and Fisheries Biology. The Landscape Ecology of Appalachia creative inquiry (CI) interested me because it seemed related to some of science fair projects I completed in high school, and because I was ready to start learning applicable field techniques. The research we are doing as a whole is designed to see how the long term effect of ex-urban development in the mountains is affecting salamander populations in first order streams. Each student also has an individual research project that we are to complete alongside the main research. My individual project, will be determining whether elevation influences the relative abundance of salamanders.

So far for most of this course, because of cold weather, we have been reading and discussing existing research papers. I have benefited greatly from this, because I have learned research methods along with a plethora of things about salamanders and other amphibians. These papers also have helped us narrow the topics for personal research. The research topic I chose didn’t directly relate to any of the papers, but the papers offered ideas on the types of research that can be done.  

I originally had a couple of different ideas for research but narrowed it down to studying how elevation influences the abundance of salamanders. During a summer ecology experience, I went on a trip where we learned about and caught terrestrial salamanders. I learned, based on the elevation, certain species of salamanders are more commonly found. From this information, along with recent research, I developed my topic. Knowing that certain species are more common based on elevation I wanted to see if elevation influenced the relative abundance. I will gather the elevation data of the testing sites from the GIS mapping system, and determine the abundance from the actual amounts and species of salamanders found in the field work. Currently, I do not have enough data to make any predictions because we have only sampled two locations.

We recently went on a weekend trip to sample test sites in Highlands, North Carolina. I learned about different factors that can influence data collection, the methods used in the research, and learned both salamander and vegetation identification. The weather conditions that we experienced on this trip were far less than ideal. One of the sampling days it rained and was overcast; leading to low visibility and detectability. It also increases the water level and stream flow. The second day we did not sample due to snow being on the ground. In addition to looking for salamanders at each site, we also measure the pH, conductivity, temperature, vegetation, stream bed composition, and percent undercut banks. All of these variables are measured within each five meter sampling stretch, which are separated by ten meter resting periods. In my personal research project I will also record the elevation of the test site, calculate the relative abundance at each site, and analyze the data in order to make a conclusion on my personal research project.

This Creative Inquiry provides undergraduates with an opportunity to participate in field research that may not be done in classes. The personal projects give us the opportunity to design and conduct our own research, which is a very important skill in the Wildlife and Fisheries Biology field. I have learned much more actually going out in the field and doing things related to this class than I have in a lecture. This class gives us the opportunity to apply methods learned in class to the field: an imperative skill to have when entering the professional world. 

Salamanders and Exurbanization

The following is guest post by Kevin McLeroy, a senior at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

After two months of participation in Clemson’s Creative Inquiry project on salamanders, I have learned exactly how much work goes into designing a research project. These first weeks spent on this project have been dedicated to developing an understanding of why salamanders are important to our ecosystems, how they can indicate the quality of the environment they live in, and what effects humans can have on them.

Our group’s research, directed by Clemson University graduate student Nathan Weaver, focuses on the effects of urbanization on the populations of salamanders. Our weekly meetings have focused on other research projects related to salamanders, such as what kind of stream habitats they prefer, the effects of buffer zones around the streams they live in, and effects of UV radiation on amphibian eggs. Reading and discussing these papers not only gave us some background information about amphibian ecology, but they also gave us an understanding of the details involved with designing a research project. Besides the actual field research, you have to find your research sites, get permission from landowners to use the sites, and make sure they are suitable for your project.

The main reason that salamanders are so intriguing is their ability to indicate the state of the environment. Salamanders are useful in this regard because their skin, like most amphibians, is very permeable, which means that chemicals from the surrounding environment will get into their bodies more easily. In addition to their permeable skin, salamanders also live 8-10 years, so they can show the long term environmental history of their habitat. Because salamanders live in aquatic habitats, they are directly affected by changes in water temperature, depth, and pollution.

On March 1, 2014, our group went with Nathan to inspect some of the field sites. Before the trip, Nathan used GIS to find first order streams located within these exurban developments. It was an all-day adventure spent driving around the Highlands, North Carolina area where a good amount of the field sites are located and making sure they are suitable. Unfortunately some of the sites we had planned to use were unavailable because they were located on private roads. It was important to make these trips in advance of our research because if the majority of the field sites were unsuitable, then our research would not be credible.

Our first sampling trip did not go as we had planned. The heavy rain in Highlands, North Carolina went on for most of the day, which decreases the detectability of the salamanders. Because salamanders live in aquatic habitats, they are more likely to hide in the event of rain as to not be swept away by the current. However, we sampled one stream and found barely any salamanders, but another stream we sampled yielded many Blue Ridge Two-Lined Salamanders. These salamanders are better adapted to lower levels of dissolved oxygen, so they persist in urbanized streams. However, the fact that only one species was detected speaks to the lack of species diversity caused by exurbanization.

Everyone has different ways of loving nature, and increasingly more people are flocking to private mountain communities with stunning views and beautiful golf courses. However, most people living in these communities do not realize the impact that their homes are having on the environment. These communities have changed the landscape, and we will see the effects of this in the coming years.  

For my personal project within the creative inquiry, I wanted to focus on the direct effect that water quality would have on the populations, but I have reconsidered and now want to address stream composition. When these communities are built, actions are taken to alter the direction of stream flow, which results in undercut banks, different stream bed composition, and different vegetation around the bank. Since salamanders prefer to live under rocks on the stream bed, I would like to see what effects the redirection of streams has on the abundance of species.

I am excited for all of the future sampling trips and continuing to learn more about the effects of exurbanization on salamanders!

What this Creative Inquiry Means to Me

The following is guest post by Meghan McDevitt, a junior at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

Every summer, my family would pack into our car and drive ten or so hours to the Appalachian Mountains. North Carolina is where I spent my childhood when I wasn't in Pennsylvania. I have such a love for this place and all of the diverse wildlife. The mountains seemed to come alive when we would go out hiking or rock hopping, and I was mesmerized by the amount of rainfall every summer. Starting at a young age, my brothers introduced me to the world of amphibians and aquatic insects. We would spend all day looking for big salamanders and "crawdaddys," enjoying all that nature had to offer. This passion for the outdoors has been carried throughout my life and has led me to where I am today: in a science-based major, studying salamanders and ecology in my free time. Going to the mountains feels like going home and I get to do this with an awesome creative inquiry.

My interest was enhanced when I entered middle school. When most were taking normal classes with all the other students, I was with 40 sixth and seventh graders in a program called Streamwatch. This was a two-year curriculum for those passionate about the sciences. We got to learn about watersheds, plant life, invertebrates, and various information about stream studies, as well as course subjects. This was heaven for me; I got to spend two years with such interesting students, dressing up as caddisflies and mayflies, changing fish tanks, and best of all, studying streams. Every other week, we took trips to our local watershed system and performed fieldwork in the streams. This was my first experience with hands on research and I loved it. While everyone else was a bit hesitant around the worms and larvae, I was immersed in the algae and macro invertebrates. It wouldn't be a field trip if I didn't come home covered in algae and dirt. The data collected went to the Chester County Parks system, and we'd collect all sorts of information from stream flow to pH and salinity. This is what sparked my interest in stream ecology.

The passion for science continued throughout my school years, resulting in me taking biology twice in high school (just because I enjoyed it so much) and being a teacher's assistant for biology. Coming to Clemson, I knew I wanted to be doing hands on research and be active in the field. Though I got off course switching from Biological Sciences to Engineering, I got right back on track Sophomore year changing to ENR: Conservation Biology. This is exactly what I can see myself doing in the future and is right up my ally. When I heard about this creative inquiry, it was like stepping back into my six year old self. I was ecstatic to be working with salamanders in the mountains, fusing both my passions and interests into one course. So far, I have thoroughly enjoyed the class. The students are all open-minded, interesting, and nice people. We work well together and can get things done while still having fun. Going out to sites is also such a great experience because we get a feel of what it's like to perform research in the field. This creative inquiry has opened my eyes to all sorts of topics to work in and I am so thankful for the opportunity. I love being able to use my plant taxonomy skills and acquire even more knowledge about wildlife biology, stream ecology, and the Appalachians. I am looking forward to the more semesters to come with this class as well as the research over the summer. This is such an interesting research topic and I will definitely apply it to real life situations, for example, reminding my family about this issue and making changes at our mountain house to prevent any more damages.