With climate change comes an increase in the severity and frequency of wildfires. In 2016, a series of wildfires broke out across western North Carolina. The Camp Branch fire ignited large portions of my long-term research site, which presented us with a unique opportunity to study the effects of severe wildfire on salamanders. I, along with my collaborator Phil Gould, established a mark-recapture study at the top of the mountain that was severely burned. We also conducted count surveys across both burn and unburned riparian regions to assess the potential buffering effects of riparian regions. Our mark-recapture study has shown that salamander density has drastically declined at the mountain top 3-years post-burn, with only the largest in size individuals remaining. We are in the process of assessing the count data and will continue to monitor our plots to assess long-term responses to severe wildfire.
I am also working collaborators on a long-term monitoring project assessing the effects of the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire on salamanders across the Great Smokey National Park.
Climate Change Modeling
One of the most useful and efficient methods towards understanding broad-scale effects of climate change is through the use of quantitative models that incorporate future climate predictions. I gathered salamander count data from five independent data sets collected from 2004 – 2017 covering a significant portion of the distribution of the Plethodon jordani complex in the Southern Appalachian Mountains to evaluate how surface activity of salamanders may change in the future. Activity is a useful parameter for understanding the effects of climate change because it is directly linked to fitness as it dictates foraging times, energy budgets, and mating opportunities. However, activity can be challenging to directly measure, especially for secretive organisms like plethodontid salamanders who only become surface active when conditions are cool and moist. We estimated the most likely abiotic predictors of surface activity present-day to then predict potential activity changes over the next 80 years based on future climate scenarios. Temperature and vapor pressure deficit were the strongest predictors of salamander surface activity and, without physiological or behavioral changes, salamanders were predicted to exhibit higher levels of surface activity during peak active season under future climate conditions. Our model is among the first to identify common environmental parameters driving detection probability across a large spatial scale and is the first compressive field-based study to assess surface activity probability in the future.