Reptiles and Amphibians


Cayuga Nature Center   Smith Woods   Total species found
  1 5       3     1 5


The team found both striped and unstriped color morphs of the red-backed salamander. Previous research suggests that color morphs may have different temperature preferences, with striped individuals having greater fitness in cooler, wetter conditions than unstriped individuals. The researchers on Team Herp recently published an article in Ecology and Evolution showing that regional climate and landuse practices play important roles in shaping the spatial distribution of color morphs. They are currently collaborating with researchers at the University of Connecticut to test how color morph frequencies have changed over the last four decades of climate and land use change in New England. Habitat loss and fragmentation is one of the leading causes of amphibian declines worldwide. Human activity in some parts of the northeastern United States has resulted in much of the landscape being fragmented into small forests stands. One reason forest fragmentation is bad for amphibians has to do with their physiology. Amphibians rely on moist conditions because they breathe across their skin. Some salamanders don’t even have lungs. Fragmented forests receive a lot of light and wind and are consequently warmer and drier than continuous forests. Salamanders in the Cayuga Basin have the ability to drop their tail when attacked by a predator, an ability shared with lizards. The behavior is called tail autonomy. When attacked on the tail by a predator, the tail breaks and starts moving vigorously. This behavior evolved to distract the predator towards the tail and away from the body of the salamander, allowing the salamander to escape.

The BioBlitz highlighted the significance of time of year on the availability of species to be sampled. Many species of amphibians are primarily active in the spring when they are breeding in wetlands. Analyses of BioBlitz data should carefully consider the impact of season on detection probability of different species. The warmer, drier conditions in fragmented forests place amphibians at risk for desiccation. 


All participants in Team Herp were students and faculty from Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS). Faculty included Brad Cosentino, Brielle Fischman, Jim Ryan, and Kristen Brubaker. Students included Katie Rogan, Maddie Balman, and Rachael Best. Grace Marshall is a senior at HWS and is currently doing an honors thesis to understand more about the behavioral ecology of red-backed salamanders. She is conducting experiments to understand how habitat fragmentation affects the evolution of dispersal, specifically in the context of exploration and risk-taking strategies.