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.