Monday, December 16, 2013

Salamander conservation in the Appalachian Mountains

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

I am a junior at Clemson University majoring in Environmental and Natural Resources-Conservation Biology. I have always been fascinated by nature and have had this urge to help in any way possible to keep it flourishing. I am currently in a Creative Inquiry that is focused on observing and collecting data on the influence of land use disturbance on stream salamanders.

The Southeastern United States contains the greatest biodiversity of salamanders in the world. Most live in wetlands occupying streams, pools of water, and rivers at various temperatures all over the world. Salamanders use cutaneous gas exchange, which means they breathe through their skin; this makes them a good indicator species since they need high levels of dissolved oxygen content in the streams they occupy. If salamander populations are decreasing in an area where they were once abundant then it could indicate environmental pollution.  An increase in local human disturbance could be a cause in this increase of pollution. As urbanization and expansion of development increases, debris and litter enter straight into streams altering its composition and therefore directly effecting the population of salamanders living in that stream. Many salamander populations are being harmed and even destroyed from habitat loss and water pollution. Many wetlands are being destroyed for the new development of towns. Around 40% of salamanders are considered to be threatened in North America. They are also over-collected for the pet trade that is making salamanders even more vulnerable. 

Urbanization in Highlands NC is booming because people love the nature that surrounds that area and everyone wants to see those mountainous views. Such amenities lure people in from all over for either a vacation-get-away home or retirement home, and small businesses are taking advantage of this up-and-coming community and moving in to cater to the upper-class desires. My Creative Inquiry group spent the weekend in Highlands collecting field data from two sites, a stream within the urban area in the heart of downtown and the other stream secluded in the Highlands Botanical Garden (used as the control group). We sampled water from each site and collected water temperature, salinity, water pH, percent dissolved oxygen, and conductivity. After recording the data we sampled for salamanders, in the urban stream we found 4 salamanders total and 4 different species. In the controlled less disturbed area we found 25 salamanders total and 7 different species.

From my personal experience in collecting field data it is very clear that urbanization directly influences salamander population and diversity. Conservation of this species is very important. Salamanders play a very significant role in the ecosystem, such as breaking down organic matter for other small organisms and for the soil where trees take up the nourishment. One valuable benefit to humans is the medical research that is being conducted on this species to study the regeneration of tissue. It is not too late for the salamanders; wetlands can be restored and protected from development. Better communication with the public can be a great start in sustaining these creatures. 

How does water pollution affect the size of salamanders?

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

I am enrolled in a Creative Inquiry course at Clemson University in which the question asked in the creative inquiry I am apart of has to do with is how the movement of human populations to a less developed location (ex-urbanization) effects salamanders. I specifically have questioned if salamander sizes vary due to the presence of toxic substances in the stream. Or, if these organisms simply vary in size due to their own individual growth rates.

In answering these two questions, the effect of common pollutants on salamanders must be identified. Because the majority of salamanders (at least the ones most common) at our field sites are lungless (family Plethodonitdae), their ability to absorb oxygen through their skin is pertinent to their survival (Pauley, 2010). As a result, the species needs clean, cool water for maintaining healthy populations. Without both of these criteria being met, they are unable to “breathe”. What are some factors that could keep them from being able to absorb this oxygen? Stream pollution is an obvious one. As Purdue University has discovered: with excess amounts of nitrogen or phosphorous in the stream, the amount of oxygen available depletes (“Water Quality”). This occurs because of the reaction between nitrate molecules and oxygen molecules; as well as phosphorous molecules and oxygen molecules. Both of these factors can accelerate plant growth and lead to oxygen deprivation in streams through photosynthesis.

As observed by Rex Springston of the Richland Times, a specific type of salamander called the Hellbender that relies solely on its ability to absorb oxygen through its skin, has been quickly disappearing throughout regions in the southeast. Springston (2013) interviewed various scientists throughout the state of Virginia who have observed this anomaly. The majority of those interviewed agreed that pollution as well as global warming caused by pollution has influenced the amount of Hellbenders seen in their state.

What does this have to do with the growth rate of salamanders you may ask? As discovered by Wood and Orr there is direct correlation between the size of the salamander and its oxygen intake (1967). The larger the amphibian, the more oxygen it will require. Therefore, it can be assumed that a larger salamander would be unable to survive in locations that more pollutants and less oxygen were present.

Throughout the course of this semester our class will be capturing and studying various salamander species that have felt the strong effects of pollution through ex-urbanization. It is obvious that the Hellbender alone is not a good enough reference to fully confirm or deny my hypothesis; this is where collecting a variety of species will become pertinent to this project. Because sampling sites will be in more mountainous regions, the types of salamanders observed will most likely include: black-bellied salamanders, shovel-nosed salamanders, and a variety of other mountain and stream-dwelling species. When collecting these species, I would like to identify and measure them to determine how each specific type has faired against the adversities of pollution and ex-urbanization. It is my hope that by the end of this creative inquiry, both my classmates and I will be more knowledgeable about exactly what effects ex-urbanization has on salamanders.

Works Cited
"Eastern Hellbender Fact Sheet." Department of Environmental Conservation. NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
"Hellbender." EDGE of Existence. The Zoological Society of London, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
"Water Quality." Water Quality. Purdue University, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
Carter, Ed. "Tennessee Wildlife Resources AgencyEd Carter, Executive Director." Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
Furuseth, Owen. "Rural Housing Exurbanization and Amenity-Driven Development: Contrasting the 'Haves' and the 'Have Nots' (Google EBook)." Pg 122. Google Books. Google, 2011. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
Hammerson, Geoffery, and David Beamer. "Plethodon Jordani." IUCN Red List. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
Pauley, Thomas K. "Salamanders of West Virginia." N.p., 04 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.
Springston, Rex. "Salamanders’ Disappearance Raises Pollution Concerns." Earth First Newswire Salamanders Disappearance Raises Pollution Concerns Comments. Richmond Times, 27 June 2013. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.

Wood, Stephen C., and Lowell P. Orr. "Effects of Photoperiod and Size on the Oxygen Consumption of the Dusky Salamander, Desmognathus Fuscus." The Ohio Journal of Science 69 (1969): 122. The Ohio State University Knowledge Bank. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

Salamanders, stream quality, and urbanization...OH MY!

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

Why are salamanders so important?

They rock!

Seriously, they do. But let us go into more so of why they are so awesome.

Salamanders can be found in terrestrial and aquatic environments where they play a huge role in our ecosystem bio-web. Sure, sure, all animals play a role, but salamanders act as a top predator! I know. They’re what?! Yes, salamanders are dominant vertebrate carnivores. Their diets are variable depending on their range, but one theme prevails: they love macroinvertebrates! Insects, crayfish, arachnids, crustaceans, molluscs, and many other arthropods. Surprisingly I found that salamanders are considered as not only a top predator, but also a keystone predator. “Keystone species prevent dominant prey from monopolizing limited resources, thus allowing the coexistence of additional species and/or an increase in the evenness of prey species abundances within a community” (Menge & Freidenburg 2001). Who cares? You should. Salamanders’ keep arthropod populations in check and balance. Any overabundance of these species could have devastating effects on an array of things, including: destroying leaf litter, damaging plants and trees (leaves, roots, barks), bacterial and fungal spread, potential pathogens, pest infestations i.e. fleas, mites, mosquitoes, amongst many more. While everything plays a role in the bio-web, too much of anything is not a good thing in the animal kingdom. Salamanders regulate these for the betterment of that system.
Fortunately and conveniently, salamanders regulate others in their genera by competition and out-sourcing.  

Salamanders are top predators, but they are also prey to a variety of animals: birds, mammals, snakes, fishes, turtles, frogs, crayfish, predatory insects, and even other salamanders! I hope you can see the web building and becoming more complex.
Now unfortunately, 29% salamander populations are in peril; 13% are currently on the Endangered Species List. You haven’t already forgotten what I told you wouldhappen with an increase of macroinvertebrates, have you? Yes, let that sink in.

Now that you’re all “Let’s save the salamanders!” we can address a major issue that has dire consequences for all parties: Stream Quality! 

Why are some roundabout reasons you can think of as to why streams are important?

I’ll list a few:
·         Habitat for plant and animal species
·         Water quality
·         Degradation of pollutants
·         Organic matter processing

The habitat one seems obvious, right? How obvious though? Do you know how?

Streams are a unique environment and habitat; therefore, the animal and plant life that live around and/or in them have adapted unique characteristics to thrive in that environment. While some species are specific to streams, others are supported by it, including: bacteria, fungi, algae, higher plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals. That’s a pretty inclusive list! Many amphibians use the streams to lay their eggs in or around; some arthropods do also!

Since we’ve learned what salamanders feast on, let’s think about what their prey eat. If you said woody debris and leaf litter, then you are correct! That’s organic matter processing, one of the reasons why streams hold significance! When woody debris and leaves fall into streams, tiny organisms feed on it and help break it down so other arthropods can eat it, too, then salamanders eat them! We’re steadily building that web!

However, streams aren’t typically too large, and since salamanders have small bodies, they tend to be very vulnerable and alterable where anthropogenic matters are concerned. Yep, we’re talking about effects of urbanization now. Runoffs, impervious cover, habitat loss, invasive species opportunities, irrigation, pollution, compaction, etc. This may seem overwhelming when all you want to do is build a house with a nice view by a stream, but it’s even more overwhelming to the various species that called this area home before you did. I’m not going to advocate stop building houses, that would be ridiculous of me to say, but I do want to advocate awareness and accountability.

With the Internet conveniently surrounding us in our day-to-day lives, we have a huge resource of knowledge, the knowledge of what I just shared with you, as well as many, many others. But with that knowledge comes responsibility to act. We can no longer sit idly by watching ecosystems become decimated. We often get overwhelmed when we think of maybe saving the rainforest. It’s too far away, it’s going against corporations, it’s too much! But what we often fail to see is the ones right in our backyard—maybe it’s a stream.

How can you help you may wonder?
Be mindful. That is the best answer I can give you. Be mindful of what consequences your actions may hold for a community of animals smaller than you. Be mindful of organizations that support clean water and environmental protections, encourage local governments to be proactive in this.

Being at the top of the food chain, we so often forget that our actions may have severe implications to those that go unseen in our daily lives. Try to keep aware of that, and also never forget that we are a part of the bio-web too.

Shifting ecosystems

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

As society continues to grow and develop we face new challenges of conserving and protecting ecosystems throughout the world. Ecosystems are fragile and dynamic. There is no recipe to construct, maintain, or restore ecosystems, making conservation and preservation invaluable tools to steward the earth.  Even though we may never fully understand how development has shifted ecosystems we can observe the effects of our past actions and discern better plans for the future.  One amazing example of the effects of development over the past 300 years or so is documented in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1729-1747). Catesby describes salmon spawning and large numbers of bears coming to feast in a place that seems to be close to where Clemson is today.

As we look forward we are in need of indicators that provide signals as to the damage caused by development. Amphibians are one of the key pieces of evidence that we are able to use to measure the effects of development. Amphibians are such wonderful bio-indicators because they are relatively fragile.  Cutaneous respiration allows amphibians to exist within a unique niche of aquatic and terrestrial life, while this is an amazing feat it does not come without complications. Essentially breathing through their skin, amphibians are much more prone to changes in their environments. Changes in water temperature, pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and the presence of heavy metals have the potential to decrease the size of the niches that these animals fill.

While on a recent survey of salamanders at the Coweeta Biological Station in Western North Carolina I began to question the rates of habitat destruction in such a short period of time.  To see the effects of development across the world in the past 300 years is staggering. There are few places that we can travel to without seeing the effects of human’s work on this planet. With the population at such a high level and our habits of resource consumption at an all time high, there is an urgent need to understand all of the harmful effects development may cause to our ecosystems. Even in this remote location that we were surveying, the effects of shifting ecosystems were present.  During the survey, plant species were inventoried within their respective plots and these data were collected for analysis of the stream. While reviewing the data I started to question what changes have taken place here in the past 100 years and our data began to provide clues a shifting ecosystem. The American Chestnut is gone, 90% of the eastern Hemlocks that we inventoried were dead. This change is well documented throughout the Southeast and we know that the loss of these two dominant canopy trees can be attributed to by human activities.  Even though this is a broad and general example it provides clarity that our actions and decisions have great consequence. The cascading effects of losing two dominant canopy trees within such a small time has dyer consequences to life that requires such specific conditions for survival.

Thinking back to when Mark Catesby once explored this area we have to wonder that if our streams were in such wonderful conditions that allowed salmon to spawn this far north, what amphibians were in those streams and how many have we lost due to the effects of dams, pollution, and other activities of development.  With development rolling forward, will we adopt strategies that help us to invest in our limited resources for the future or will we continue to turn a blind eye. Man is capable of living more sustainable lifestyles and just as the cascading effects of a species loss works, increased implementation of sustainable development will yield results that we can be proud of.

I wonder why the verge of amphibian global extinction didn't make the front page news

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

Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, encompassing the organisms that most people would consider scary, slimy, scaly, or dangerous. However, I believe these creatures are among the most misunderstood. Amphibians are one of the most endangered vertebrate groups, and many species are at risk of extinction.
The global decline in the amphibians was first noticed by the scientific community in 1989 when the World Congressof Herpetology met to function as a voice for international herpetological issues in conservation. During which they discussed solutions to the rising global amphibian concern. Recent scientific findings have made progress towards understanding the reasons behind the amphibian global decline. The decline is a combination of many factors such as disease and environmental changes due to human activity. The common disease affecting most amphibians is the widespread invasion of the Chytrid fungus causing many of these mass extinctions. Scientists are trying to understand the full range of factors stressing these creatures to become more susceptible to the fungus, and acquire how the fungus can be stopped or mitigated. Recent monitoring efforts have been successful for Costa Rica’s very diverse amphibian population in understanding the declines and where the fungus will strike next. These efforts have helped significantly in the conservation of endangered amphibians in the Central American area.
Within Costa Rica, research and monitoring has shown that areas with lack of habitat deforestation but with an increase in climate temperatures within the last decade has been a strong environmental factor in the reduction of the quantity of  leaf litter essential to the habitat of amphibians of the area (Whitfield, 2006). Research to determine if Chytrid fungus can be implicated in the mass amphibian decline in Costa Rica found that the disease was in most areas at different altitudes before the mass declines of amphibian population took place (Puschendorf, 2006).  Other studies show that the areas where Chytrid fungus has been most detrimental are those areas with the most influence of human activity. Efforts to monitor the situation by predicting where the fungus will strike next have become a race against time as species numbers decline. Conservationists have had to resort to desperate measures to secure preservation of certain species by keeping some in captivity until the fungus can be eradicated out of the natural environment. As new techniques and procedures are developing to help assist scientists in understanding how to stop the fungus, the World Congress of Herpetology hopes to raise awareness of the importance of amphibians, and how they serve important ecological roles. These creatures are vital to the ecosystem and are good ecological indicators due to their high degree of sensitivity and their ability to respond to changes in the environment. These creatures deserve to be protected for generations to come. Of course, it starts with you.

Read the scientific facts:
1. Weldon C, du Preez LH, Hyatt AD, Muller R, Speare R. Origin of the amphibian chytrid fungus. Emerging Infectious Diseases [1080-6059]. Available from
2. Rosenblum E, Voyles J, Poorten T, Stajich J. The Deadly Chytrid Fungus: A Story of n Emerging Pathogen. PLoS Pathogens. [1000550].  Available from
3. Whitfield S, Bell K, Philippi T, Sasa M, Bolaños F, Chaves G, Savage J, Donnelly M. Amphibian and Reptile declines over 35 years at La Selva, Costa Rica. JSTOR: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

4. Puschendorf R, Bolaños F, Chaves G. The Amphibian Chytrid Fungus along an Altitudinal transect before the first reported declines in Costa Rica. Biological Conservation. [132: 136-142]  Available from