MORGANTOWN – As two local salamander species battle for resources, researchers at the University of West Virginia seek to save them both.
Herpetologist Donald Brown, assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources research, explores the effects of climate change on the already threatened Mountain Salamander Cheat, already threatened by the federal government, and its main competitor, the Red-backed Salamander. The research is carried out by the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
The southern and central Appalachian regions are hotspots of global biodiversity for salamanders, which have evolved and become hyper-diverse due to the mountains that served as geographic barriers.
This is true for small animals like salamanders that do not travel far. Not only are there salamanders endemic to West Virginia, but there are species endemic to specific mountain peaks. This is Brown’s point of concern.
“As the climate warms, lower elevation species like the Red-backed Salamander move up the mountain and increasingly compete with endemic high-elevation salamanders like the Cheat Mountain Salamander, which have nowhere else to go. go because they’re already on top of the mountain, ”Brown said in a statement. “Whatever happens, they have to deal with it, including changes in competition due to the arrival of species in their areas.”
Designated by the federal government as threatened, there are approximately 80 populations of Cheat Mountain Salamanders, some of which have only 10 documented individuals. They are about four inches long and only exist in Cheat Mountain, which is part of the Allegheny Mountains in eastern West Virginia.
“It certainly doesn’t add up to much compared to the Red-backed Salamander, the state’s most common wood salamander with a wide range and high populations,” a statement said.
Red-backed salamanders can be found in Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Canada, and many other areas. Their orange or red stripe on the back is indicative of their type, and they can range from two to five inches – surpassing the Cheat Mountain Salamander in size and number.
“Red-backed salamanders are considered the bad guys in our world. They are not; they’re just trying to survive, ”Brown said in a statement.
As the numbers of Red-backed Salamanders continue to increase, Cheat Mountain Salamanders must compete for nesting sites under logs and rocks, pushing them out of their optimal habitat.
Increased competition between the two could lead to the disappearance of the Cheat Mountain Salamander – meaning it would be locally extinct in the region and forced to seek habitat elsewhere.
“There is a debate in the field of wildlife over whether we should advocate for the economic or functional value of species, but species are inherently valuable,” Brown said in a statement. “They don’t have to prove themselves to us to be of value.”
Salamanders play a bigger role in the ecosystem than most people realize, he added. In terms of the functional value of the species, they serve as both predator and prey.
No matter what species prevails in the competition for resources, there will always be a salamander component in the ecosystem.
The only plan they have for this potential move is to physically move the Red Backs out of Cheat Mountain Salamander territory.
“The first thing is to understand how vulnerable species are to the direct and indirect effects of climate change such as increased competition,” Brown said in a statement. “The red-backed salamanders are coming. there is no doubt.
The climate has changed to make it more suitable for them.
“If there is an extirpation of the Cheat Mountain Salamander, the biggest active management tool that would likely be useful is the actual elimination of the red-backed salamanders from these areas,” Brown said in a statement.
What no one knows, however, is how well red-backed salamanders will perform in these new environments over the long term.
“We know that Cheat Mountain Salamanders can thrive in them, but we don’t really know whether or not Red-backed Salamanders will thrive in the environment they occupy,” Brown said in a statement.
To learn more about the abilities of red-backed salamanders to adapt to new environments as well as climate change, Brown worked with Lacy Rucker, a graduate student in natural resource science, to conduct an experimental study in the Monongahela National Forest.
The pair placed pens on a two-degree Celsius elevation gradient that was designed to mimic the climate change expected over the next 100 years. Red-backed salamanders were placed in pens at different altitudes while their growth and survival were monitored.
Rucker was unable to include the Cheat Mountain Salamander in the experiment due to its designation as threatened at the federal level.
While still analyzing the results of the mesocosm study, Rucker performed analyzes of a long-term monitoring dataset to better assess the impacts of forest fragmentation on Cheat Mountain and salamanders. red-backed.
They found that the red back increased near the edges of the forest, indicating that at higher elevations they could benefit from openings in the forest canopy or reduced competition from Cheat Mountain salamanders.