Plethodontid salamanders are the most diverse group of amphibians in North America and there are over 30 species found in the Southern Appalachians alone. However, these amphibians are vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change and habitat alteration because of their lungless anatomy, requiring respiration to occur through their skin. For such ‘skin-breathing’ to occur, plethodontids must live in cool and moist habitats, making any change in that habitat potentially catastrophic to their survival. While these salamanders are found across most elevations of Southern Appalachians, they inhabit specific microhabitats across the landscape to meet their physiological requirements.
My research centers on understanding how fine-scale abiotic gradients, namely temperature and moisture, drive the distribution, abundance, and demography of salamanders. We have found that salamanders have variable distribution and abundance across a montane landscape whereby at low elevations, where regional climates tend to be warm and dry, salamanders are restricted to stream-side habitats which offer cooler and wetter habitats. At higher elevations, where the regional climate is cool and moist, salamanders are less restricted to streams, and are more uniformly distributed across the landscape. I am pursuing numerous other questions using the foundational knowledge of these spatial patterns. For example, I have an ongoing Mark-Recapture study to determine whether life history and demography vary along temperature and moisture gradients and have conducted experiments to asses variation in stress physiology in response to various abiotic conditions (see Physiology page).