Monday, March 31, 2014

Why we protect our amphibians

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

Today in our society whenever an environmental topic appears in conversation it always seems to be followed by the words: “global warming” or “fossil fuels”. Very few times, if ever, does the general public talk about the issues facing wildlife or, more specifically, amphibians. If these people are not discussing problems with amphibians it’s also a pretty safe bet that they are not saying anything for an even more specific amphibian: a salamander.

My name is Randi Sims and I am part of a diverse group of individuals at Clemson University who are trying to give these creatures their voice in our world. This group is a Creative Inquiry class specifically focused on how exurbanization (or the movement of individuals from a more populated to a less populated area) in the Appalachian Mountains is affecting salamanders. Each one of us are developing and researching our own questions regarding amphibian and stream conservation. It is through this that we hope to make a difference in the way exurbanization is conducted.

Before describing my own project, I feel that it is necessary to give a little background on salamanders. As an environmental science major I have always heard of these little creatures, but never truly understood what their influence was on the environment or why they were of such importance to stream ecology. The honest truth is that this is one of the first things I should have known going into my major. For those of you who are unaware of how an ecosystem works, this is the simplest explanation I can give: it’s very much like a house, it takes many sturdy parts to build a strong, sound structure. Each organism down to the smallest micro invertebrate is a like a brick to that house, and once you take one brick out it becomes much less stable, threatening to fall. In this comparison, the streams are like this house and the salamanders in it are the foundational bricks. By taking them out, almost every thing else collapses around them.

Salamanders are not only important to the stream ecosystem, but also to our own lives. One of the things many individuals who live near watersheds find to be an issue is a large mosquito population. While this may not seem like too much of a problem, it is a large annoyance to many people and even a safety concern when taking into account diseases like Malaria. Scientists Robert Brodman and Ryan Dorton have quantified the affect that salamanders have on the populations of these insects around riparian habitats. In their research, they discovered that one particular type of salamander (the Tiger salamander or Ambystoma tigrinum) removes 144 mosquitos for every one salamander larvae (2011). Seeing that one clutch of salamander eggs can contain as many as fifty viable larvae, this can mean a lot of mosquitoes are being removed by these amphibians, keeping their population size in check (Gopurenko, Williams, McCormick, DeWoody, 2006).

As you can see, these are just two of the ways that salamanders impact both the ecosystems and our own lives. Unfortunately, though, we are also impacting them, but not in a good way. In developing my project I have learned that there are a lot of factors in exurbanization that threaten delicate ecosystems in these areas and the organisms in it; specifically our amphibian friends. My project looks in detail at one aspect of it: stream flow. While it may seem like something that means little to nothing to the average person, all of the debris, sediment, and trash building up in the streams from construction are causing huge changes in this factor. It is my goal of this experiment to look at specifically how their young are being affected by a change in stream flow. To me this is one of the most interesting and maybe even important parts of the overall question of affects of exurbanization, however as my classmates can concur, it is only one side effect of what we are starting to see is a much larger issue.

Throughout the course of this creative inquiry class my peers and I hope to make a real difference in the lives of these creatures and, consequently, our own. We are only halfway through the semester and already forming our projects, as well as preparing for even more in-depth research. All of us are extremely excited about this class and our progress in it, and hope to keep you posted on our upcoming experiments!