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Summer Research Spotlight: The Salamander Squad

Did you know that there is a species of salamanders on the Peaks of Otter Mountains — a favorite hike for many W&L students — that is threatened to become extinct? Juniors Kate McCreary and Kara Farroni are spending their summer with Professor David Marsh researching the endangered Peaks of Otter salamander.

This summer, the two hiked through the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains collecting data on the Peaks of Otter salamander and the more abundant Red-back salamander. Specifically, they are examining how rising temperatures could affect the populations and niches of these two species.

The Peaks of Otter salamander is a unique species in that its only habitat is isolated to a 20 km stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because these salamanders thrive in specific temperatures and elevations, the mountain tops in the Blue Ridge, dubbed the Peaks of Otter, are the only place they can survive. The Red-back salamander does not have such strict habitat requirements and lives on mountains throughout the East coast. The Red-backs inhabit the mountainside below the Peaks salamanders’ sky-bound habitat. If temperatures rise, permitting the red- backed salamander to thrive on the Blue Ridge’s mountaintops, these two species could potentially collide in a relationship called competitive exclusion.

“Competitive exclusion is the principle that two species competing for the same resources, as the Peaks of Otters and Red-backs do, cannot coexist at stable population values because if one species has even the slightest advantage over the other, it will outcompete it in the long run,” Farroni said. “This is what we fear will happen to the Peaks of Otter salamanders if the Red-backs are more adept to dealing with climate change.”

“The Peaks of Otter salamander cannot easily change its habitat or distribution range since it is already located at the highest point on the mountain it can reach,” McCreary continues. “By studying the effects of temperature and climate change, we can determine if they are at risk of other salamanders, such as the Red-back salamander, expanding into their territory and displacing them. We hope to raise awareness to prevent forest degradation in their distribution range.”

McCreary and Farroni took a field herpetology class their freshman year, which first sparked their interest in the Peaks of Otter salamanders. Throughout their sophomore year, they continued helping Professor Marsh by driving to the Peaks to check each species’ plot on the mountain. They counted, tagged and measured the salamanders they found and recorded the temperature and moisture of the soil.

Farroni stressed the importance of the salamander on the ecosystem. “As the most abundant vertebrates in most eastern forests, salamanders are important to the environment because they prey on insects and arthropods,” said Farroni. “This keeps these populations in balance, which leads to a healthier forest.”

The opportunity to spend a summer hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains and researching this unique species was appealing. “I have a great interest in the outdoors and in sustaining mountain-top ecosystems in which salamanders play a crucial role,” McCreary said. “So I was excited to learn that Professor Marsh wanted to continue the research over the summer and quickly accepted the opportunity!”

In addition to collecting field samples, McCreary and Farroni brought salamanders back to the lab to test their tolerance to certain temperatures. “We do this by gradually warming the surface of experimental containers and observe the temperatures at which salamanders begin to retreat underground to escape the heat,” McCreary explained.

Both McCreary and Farroni are pre-med and members of the Tri Beta Biology Honors Society. McCreary is captain of the cross country team and is also involved with Speak on campus, while Farroni also competes on the track and field team.
Both avid outdoor adventurers, they said they enjoyed an academic summer that was not restricted to an indoor lab, but expanded across the Appalachian Mountains. “It is one of the only research positions at W&L where you get to spend a majority of your time outside hiking and running around in the woods,” said McCreary. “We never know what to expect when we go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.”

This research crew chronicles their adventures on Instagram @wlusalamandersquad.

– by Laura Lemon ’16 and Jinae Kennedy ’16