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Salamanders can adapt better to climate change than previously thought

Although tiny salamanders are often overlooked members of forest ecosystems, they are crucial for maintaining the delicate balance of nature, since they eat insects and decompose organic matter, helping to cycle nutrients through the forest and its streams.

Plethodontid salamanders, a group that includes many species found in North America, are particularly important, as they “breathe” entirely through their skin and are thus especially sensitive to changes in their environment. Unfortunately, like many other species, plethodontids are threatened by climate change, and previous research has predicted drastic habitat losses for these small amphibians.

However, a team of researchers led by the University of Illinois has now found that the outlook for plethodontids in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) may not be as bleak as previously thought. Traditional models that used free-air temperature data at large spatial scales did not take into account the microclimates that are so important to small, ground-dwelling animals. 

By using microclimate data gathered from hundreds of locations in GSMNP, the scientists found that the predicted habitat loss for plethodontids was not as severe as previously thought. Although still significant – ranging from 55 percent to 80 percent – the habitat loss was less than the previous estimate of nearly 100 percent.

The scientists have also identified areas that may become more suitable for plethodontids as the climate changes, and can thus be prioritized for conservation or park management to ensure the survival of these important species, such as a large area of potential gain in highly suitable habitat for the red-cheeked salamander, which is endemic to the Smoky Mountains and found only in a small range of high-elevation areas in GSMNP and a few nearby areas.

The difference in the predicted habitat loss between the traditional models and the microclimate-based models is due to the fact that the traditional models do not take into account the buffering effect of forests. Temperatures and moisture are much more stable near the forest floor than in open areas, where weather stations are typically located. Microclimate data gathered from sensors in small areas provide a more accurate picture of the conditions that are important to plethodontids and other small animals.

“The forest is pushing solar energy back out, absorbing it, altering wind patterns, and there are plant-water interactions; just all sorts of microclimate variables near the surface that aren’t accounted for in typical climate layers,” explained study lead author Sam Stickley, an assistant professor in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at Illinois.

Although microclimate-based models are not perfect and cannot account for all the factors that may affect the survival of salamanders and other small animals, they represent a major step forward in understanding and protecting these important species and can help researchers and conservationists ensure that they will continue to play their critical roles in forest ecosystems.

The study is published in the Journal for Nature Conservation.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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