Salamanders are a more abundant food source in forest ecosystems than previously thought

November 18, 2014, University of Missouri-Columbia
Semlitsch's study measured the population density and biomass of the Southern Redback Salamander in the Ozark Highlands in Missouri. Credit: Katie O'Donnell

In the 1970s, ecologists published results from one of the first whole-forest ecosystem studies ever conducted in Hubbard Brook, New Hampshire. In the paper, scientists reported that salamanders represent one of the largest sources of biomass, or food, of all vertebrates in the forest landscape. Now, using new sampling and statistical techniques not available during the past study, researchers at the University of Missouri have estimated that the population of salamanders in forested regions of the Missouri Ozarks are 2-4 times higher than originally thought, and in other regions of the eastern U.S. may be on average 10 times higher. Scientists believe that acknowledging salamanders as one of the main food sources in forest ecosystems could help drive conservation efforts and forest management.

"Our lab works to identify salamanders as an influential part of the forest ecosystem and food chain," said Ray Semlitsch, Curators Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU. "Using the latest research methods, we calculated the population size of Southern Redback Salamanders in Ozark Forests and their value as a food source. We found that 1.88 billion salamanders inhabit one district of the Mark Twain National Forest alone, which is roughly 1,400 metric tons of biomass. For comparison, that's equivalent to the biomass found in most whitetail deer in that region!"

There are two methods for estimating abundance. One is to simply count salamanders and plot the numbers on a grid representing the . That is how the estimates were calculated in the 1970s. However, Semlitsch's group, armed with the knowledge that the majority of salamanders are underground at any given time, captured animals on the surface during intensive repeated surveys over two years and used statistical modeling to produce a more thorough accounting of variation in salamander population density.

"Our abundance models also take into account environmental factors," Semlitsch said. "Factors such as date of collection, time since last rainfall, slope of the terrain and forest canopy cover are plugged into the model to help predict variation in the surface population over time; that's what makes our model so powerful. The hidden biodiversity of amphibians is something we don't generally consider; we forget that salamanders are nocturnal and mostly unobserved. Therefore, I think most will be amazed at the quantities of food out there that we just don't see."

Semlitsch believes that future research should consider the importance of amphibians to ecosystem processes such as soil enrichment. Future techniques and protection of are important to healthy and should be considered in all management decisions, Semlitsch said.

Explore further: Salamanders help predict health of forest ecosystems and inform forest management

More information: The study, "Abundance, biomass production, nutrient content, and the possible role of terrestrial salamanders in Missouri Ozark forest ecosystems," was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology: www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/f … 14-0141#.VGTt_ZXF_mc

Related Stories

How much effect does a microhabitat change truly have?

September 5, 2014

To understand the behavioral patterns of all organisms co-existing together, we must examine our ecosystems, habitats, and even microhabitats. Even variation in climate change or human influence at small scales can ultimately ...

Scientists prove ground and tree salamanders have same diets

September 4, 2014

Salamanders spend the vast majority of their lives below ground and surface only for short periods of time and usually only on wet nights. When they do emerge, salamanders can be spotted not only on forest floors but also ...

Health of ecosystems on US golf courses

April 10, 2014

Currently, there are more than 18,300 golf courses in the U.S. covering over 2.7 million acres. The ecological impacts of golf courses are not always straightforward with popular opinion suggesting that environmentally, golf ...

Golf course: Playing fields, wildlife sanctuaries or both

December 3, 2008

"FORE"...Though they may not help improve a person's golf game, stream salamanders might change the way golfers think about the local country club in the near future, following a new University of Missouri study.

Recommended for you

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.