Slippery When Caught
Catching stream salamanders can be a slippery proposition.
“It can be like holding on to a bag of snot with muscle,” said Jackie Guzy, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences. “They have slick skin, powerful legs and a thick tail.”
Guzy has become quite familiar with these amphibians over the past couple of years.
Guzy’s field research in southwest Arkansas focuses on two stream-associated salamanders, the Ouachita dusky salamander (Desmognathus brimleyorum, seen in the main image above) and the many-ribbed salamander (Eurycea multiplicata). She is also examining overall patterns of species richness and diversity across five counties in the Ouachita mountain range – Polk, Montgomery, Howard, Pike and Sevier.
Guzy and Kelly Halloran, a master’s student at the U of A, completed their second three-month field season this summer, documenting 37 reptile and amphibian species and collecting data on hundreds of salamanders at 85 streams.
The three-year project uses occupancy and abundance modeling to examine methods for balancing timber production with conservation of the area’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Weyerhaeuser, the U.S.-based forest products company, is helping fund the study through a grant to J.D. Willson, an assistant professor of biological sciences who is leading the project.
The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s Division of Science and Technology and the U of A are also funding the project.
“Amphibians are important contributors to the biodiversity of temperate forests and are generally considered excellent indicators of overall ecosystem health,” Guzy said. “One method for enhancing biodiversity in managed forests is to retain buffers of mature forest along streams.”
These buffers, known as streamside management zones, are part of forestry best-management practices to maintain water quality, but they also provide critical upland habitat for stream-associated species such as salamanders. Few studies, however, have focused on stream-associated species or evaluated how characteristics of streamside management zones and the surrounding landscape influence their effectiveness for conserving these amphibian populations.
“If we are consistently finding salamanders and other reptile and amphibian species in streamside management zones, we know the zones are conserving some of the biodiversity found there,” Guzy said. “We’re using these salamanders, which are only found in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma, as an indicator species for overall stream health and trying to determine how wide streamside management zones must be to maintain that health.”
The work can be exhausting. Guzy and Halloran, who are using the field work as the basis for their dissertation and master’s thesis, respectively, conduct surveys almost around the clock, with just a few hours of sleep each day.
For example, Guzy and Halloran spent nine hours one night covering a 200-meter stretch of a stream. There were salamanders everywhere.
“The conditions were really good because it had just rained and it was warm and humid,” Guzy said. “Nearly every rock I flipped had a salamander under it.”
When they got back to their cabin, they found they had collected 212 salamanders. They spent 30 hours marking and measuring them before releasing them back to the same rock where each had come from.
As part of Halloran’s thesis work, they’ve marked 1,242 Ouachita dusky salamanders across three streams. Weyerhaeuser will harvest the timber surrounding two of these streams.
“Each salamander gets a mark that is like a little tattoo,” Guzy said. “So three months or a year later, if we catch that same one again we can track its movements, growth and survival. These measures will allow us to determine how salamander populations are affected by timber harvesting.”