Monday, December 16, 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.

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