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Studying Spotted Salamanders

Posted on Friday, May 02, 2014

Salamanders only migrate twice a year - in the spring and in the fall. This summer, Assistant Professor of Biology Bradley Cosentino will study one particular aspect of their migration as part of his research focus on conservation biology. Using salamanders from local wetlands that are located both close to and far from roads, Cosentino will examine whether the movement behavior of spotted salamanders evolves in response to roads. Alison McCarthy '15 an environmental studies and biology double major, will participate in Summer Science Research and join Cosentino on the study. This will be McCarthy's first long-term field study and she intends to continue the research next year as her Honors project.

Research exists that suggests that animals move in characteristic ways in risky habitats.

"Animals show different movement behaviors in different habitats," explains Cosentino. "Those in risky habitats tend to move fast and straight, but not much is known about whether this type of behavior is an evolved or learned response."

He and McCarthy will be raising spotted salamanders from different wetland sites in a controlled setting, which will give them some insight into whether movement behavior evolves. They are hoping to acquire spotted salamanders from five wetlands of each characteristic and have multiple animals from each.

"It would be great to get as many as possible," says Cosentino.

They will release the salamanders on a road during their fall migration period to see how they move. The varied movement of salamanders acquired as adults could be based on genetics or environment. However, the salamanders they will raise in the lab from the earliest stage should only show modified movement on road surfaces as the result of genetics. As salamanders are nocturnal, Cosentino and McCarthy will use a non-toxic fluorescent powder to track the animals' movement when released at night.

Their work is significant for conservation biologists who are faced with multiple threats to numerous species and limited resources with which to remediate those threats. If it is determined that the movement behavior is evolved, it could indicate these populations can deal with human impacts on their own. However, another consideration is whether the response is good enough - does the adaptation lead to the population's persistence over time? Determining which species more greatly need help and in which areas they need it is beneficial in planning the efforts of resource managers.

"Roads are one of the most important threats to amphibians," says Cosentino. "If, for example some amphibians can adapt to the road environment, maybe resources can be redirected to resolving other critical issues that threaten them, such as disease."

Cosentino and students taking his course, "Conservation Biology," recently conducted a research project focused on answering important questions about how ecological disturbances affect amphibian diversity in the eastern United States. The project contributed to a broader research effort conducted by nine other colleges and universities participating in the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (NAAMP) facilitated by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Having joined the faculty in 2012, Cosentino earned his B.A. from Augustana College, and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. His interest is in evolutionary biology and ecology, and his research includes animal movements and population dynamics.

McCarthy has conducted research as part of a semester abroad program in Copenhagen, as well as with Cosentino on campus. She recently earned Honorable Mention in The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

 

 


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