Fellow's Highlight: Kristopher Winiarski

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Kris was instilled with a passion to understand the natural world from a young age. He grew up in Rhode Island, a few miles from the shore of Narraganset Bay, ­and while chasing bluefish and striped bass he began to understand the ecology of the coastal systems around him. He attended the University of Rhode Island (URI) majoring in wildlife biology, where he launched his career in research. As an undergraduate field technician, he spent time in salt marshes studying coastal invasives, and in upland forests studying tick-borne diseases. His research took him to a remote research camp on the shore of the Hudson Bay, evaluating the resource use and foraging ecology of lesser-snow geese.  After receiving his Master’s in environmental conservation from URI, he spent four years conducting marine bird surveys and developing spatial models to support the siting of offshore wind farms.

He joined the NE CASC as a Ph.D. candidate at UMass Amherst working with NE CASC PI Dr. Curt Griffin and professor Dr. Kevin McGarigal at the Department of Environmental Conservation on the project A climate dependent metapopulation model of marbled salamanders in western Massachusetts. The reproductive success of marbled salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) is tightly linked to vernal pool hydrology. There are concerns that changes in precipitation patterns predicted due to climate change (drier summers and wetter winters with precipitation being more episodic), along with increased summer temperatures (increased evaporation and evapotranspiration) will significantly change current vernal pool hydrology and possibly lead to more frequent incidents of marbled salamander reproductive failure.

Kris took on the analysis of a decade-long collection of over 13,500 images taken of marbled salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) captured from a cluster of vernal pools at the base of the Holyoke Range in west-central Massachusetts. All marbled salamanders have a unique pattern allowing for individual recognition and thus the ability to track individuals through time. Kris first worked with the developer of the photograph matching software, AmphIdent, to optimize a photograph matching algorithm.  He could then summarize the capture history of individuals and evaluate both the direct and indirect effects of climate change on the annual survival and breeding frequency of marbled salamanders using statistical models.

Kris’ dissertation research also focused on marbled salamander and spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) landscape genetics.  Salamander genetics analyses have allowed him to understand the species-specific topographic and anthropogenic drivers of gene flow across the Pioneer Valley and to develop a mapping product which highlights species-specific clusters of vernal pools most connected by gene flow with the best surrounding upland salamander habitat.  These results, and having a better understanding of marble salamander reproductive success, can help decisions makers determine which vernal pools or clusters of vernal pools will be most important to protect based on future forecasted hydrology.  

As a researcher he believes in making connections and collaborations with a practiced eye towards supporting resource conservation decision makers. “Sometimes the effects of climate change on widllife are not always intuitive, and our research can change the focus of future conservation work,” he says.  His passion for the understanding the natural world is a story in itself.


A Salamander Tale from Addie on Vimeo.

Kris is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Waterloo where he studies greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) landscape genetics and develops sage grouse habitat selection models to support resource managers at the Bureau of Land Management.  


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