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Too Hot for Salamanders and Newts to Trot?

Thursday, July 17, 2014, by Simone Johnson
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[red-spotted newt in the juvenile, red eft stage]Harvard Forest is dominated by a coniferous species called Eastern Hemlock, but due to an insect pest known as the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, the hemlocks are dying. This, in turn, affects the habitat in which Red-backed salamanders and Red-spotted newts live. The changing climate also affects the habitat of these cute little creatures. Salamanders are smooth and slimy, which many people might call gross; salamanders are not gross, they are magnificent! Newts are not slimy, and they are just as magnificent! Salamanders and newts breathe through their skin (whoa!), like most amphibians, and they both thrive in cool, moist habitats; the similarities do not stop there, but they are also very different: Red-backed salamanders lay their eggs terrestrially, while Red-spotted newts lay theirs in water, live on dry land as juveniles, and then complete their life cycle in the water.

[a coverboard]I am one in a group of ten researchers looking at how the microclimate (temperature and other conditions close to the forest floor) is changing and how that, in turn, affects salamanders and newts. I basically want to know if it is too dry for salamanders and newts to be out in the open to forage and breed and when (day and/or night) is the best time to go out to look for them. I also want to know how different sampling methods affect the observed numbers of both of these species. I will get all of this information by using archived weather data from one of Harvard Forest's weather stations (Fisher Meteorological Station) and using three variables (minimum air temperature, relative humidity, and precipitation). I'll compare numbers of both species to the fluctuations in those three variables. I will also compare numbers of Red-spotted newts between sampling methods. "But wait! How are you getting your numbers, Simone?" You ask. Well, I'll tell you! I use coverboards, which are 1 meter long planks of wood that are acting as a cover object for the salamanders and newts. Salamanders usually use fallen trees and other decaying woody debris to stay cool and moist. I look under the boards to see if there are any salamanders or newts, and sometimes I find one or two and other times there are none. I also walk the transects, which are the straight lines from one coverboard to another, to look for newts. Both of these species are seen and caught through serendipitous encounters so it is very exciting to spot them.

The summer has been going great! I love the atmosphere of the work place, the field, and the house where 22 interns live! Everyone is so wonderful and accepting and I hope to keep in contact for years to come. This is the first REU program I have participated in and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. 

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