Characterizing Local and Rangewide Variation in Demography and Adaptive Capacity of a Forest Indicator Species

Fiscal Year: 
Project Leader: 
Research Partners: 
David A.W. Miller (Penn State University, Dept of Ecosystem Science and Management)
Science Themes: 

Climate change will have sweeping impacts across the northeast, yet there are key gaps in our understanding about whether species will be able to adapt to this changing environment. This project illuminated local and region-wide changes in forest ecosystems by studying the red-backed salamander, a species that is a strong indicator of forest conditions. This study identified habitat and forest characteristics that improve the resiliency of forest dwelling amphibians and other wildlife to climate change. Further, by studying a foundational species in forest floor ecosystems, others can use the information to make inferences about rare and declining species. This project found evidence that salamanders will be negatively impacted by hotter temperature and drier conditions, both in terms in how well they might survive but also in their ability to move around on the forest floor. With reductions in surface activity, there are less opportunities to forage or find mates. Lastly, given the collaborative nature and scope of this project, we will be able to advance scientific education through multiple means: training current and upcoming scientists, encouraging primary school student’s participation in STEM fields, and increasing scientific literacy about climate change through education exhibits at nature centers and zoos.

Final Report: 

Regarding the adaptive capacity of red-backed salamanders across their range, the research supported by the NE CASC provides some insight. First, surface activity of salamanders across populations appears to respond similarly to temperature and rainfall, suggesting that there is not local adaptation to foraging on the forest floor. Individual growth rates suffer, as expected, as metabolic costs under warmer temperatures increase, and though prior work suggests that the two color morphs have differential susceptibility to increased temperatures, our work in a range center population fails to find support for this difference. This is despite evidence that populations from warmer climates have greater metabolic plasticity. However, these populations may be at the edge of their thermal tolerance, meaning that they lack adaptive capacity to exposure to increased temperatures. While these observations suggest a limit to the physiologic adaptive capacity, populations may still retain behavioral adaptive capacity in the timing of surface activity. Our current research is following up on this hypothesis to test the subsurface activity and physiologic responses to edaphic climate conditions.

Grant, Evan. 2018, Final Report -Characterizing local and range wide variation in demography and adaptive capacity of a forest indicator species, USGS

  • Sean C. Sterrett, Todd D. Dubreuil, Matt O’Donnell and Evan H.C. Grant. Development of a novel passive integrated transponder (PIT) vertical telemetry system for studying subterranean movements of woodland salamanders (Plethodon) Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. July, 2016.
  • Muñoz, David, Sean Sterrett, Evan Grant, Adrianne Brand, David Miller. The Salamander Population and Adaptation Research Collaboration Network (SPARCnet): The First Two Years in Regional Population Monitoring. Paper presented at Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (NEPARC) Annual Meeting, West Greenwich, RI. August 19, 2015.
  • Sterrett, S.C., E.H.C. Grant, A.B. Brand, A. Dietrich, D. Munoz, D.A.W. Miller. Gaining knowledge and improving societal value for terrestrial salamanders: A model for amphibian conservation. Invited presentation: Special Session - “Frontiers in Amphibian Conservation,” 100th Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD. August 9, 2015.
  • Muñoz, David, K. Miller Hesed, EHC. Grant, D. Miller. Predicting climate change adaptive potential in red-backed salamanders: within-population variation in responses to climate. Paper presented at 100th Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD. August 9, 2015.
  • Brand, A.B., A. Dietrich, E.H.C. Grant, D.W. Miller, D. Munoz, and S.C. Sterrett. Response of Plethodon cinereus to variation in soil freezing: the design and first year of SPARCnet. The Wildlife Society Annual Conference, Pittsburgh, PA. October 25, 2014.