Cold Blooded & Underfoot

Fall Winter 2021 Issue

For the past eight years, Tanya Matlaga, assistant professor of biology, has been engaged in research on a tiny woodland creature she hopes will give scientists some insight into the impacts of climate change.

Matlaga is a collaborator on SPARCnet, the Salamander Population and Adaptation Research Collaboration Network. The network began in 2013 as a partnership between researchers at Penn State University and the USGS Northeast Amphibian and Research Monitoring Initiative. SPARCnet’s research seeks to understand climate adaptation and population dynamics of the red-backed salamander.

“In general, amphibians are known to be good indicators of environmental change,” Matlaga says. “Red-backed salamanders are very common and have quite a large range or distribution, so they are the perfect species to study for this project.”

Red-backed salamanders are native to the Eastern United States and Canada. Lungless, they live in damp, moist habitats and absorb oxygen from the environment around them. Unlike most other amphibians, red-backed salamanders do not hatch as larva, but as fully formed salamanders.

Matlaga and her students first began studying the red-backed salamander at Camp Karoondinha, also known as Camp K, a 400-acre Boy Scout camp along Penns Creek in Union County. Here, they studied various aspects of the salamander, including its homing behavior and diet, as well as population distribution by scattering cover boards — square planks of wood — across identified plots and checking them for salamanders.

As climates warm, scientists predict decreased snowfall and snow accumulation, Matlaga says. Snow acts as an insulator for the upper level of soil where the salamander spends 95% of its time during the winter and also during the heat of summer.

“If we have less snow and colder soil, that will likely have an impact on the species,” Matlaga says, “as well as the invertebrates they eat.”

Matlaga has studied the salamander’s diet using gastric lavage, a process that involves pushing a small amount of water into the live salamander’s belly, before it regurgitates the contents of its stomach. The process allows Matlaga and her students to identify the salamander’s diet without having to sacrifice the creature.

“We’ve found small mites and spring tails, ants, termites,” Matlaga says.

Biology major Kody Streeter ’21, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, was one of Matlaga’s summer research interns. The two spent last summer setting up long-term sampling plots to study the red-backed salamander in Loyalsock State Forest.

The research assistantship gave Streeter the opportunity to work on two publications as well as her senior capstone project in which she examined the effects of herbicide on local salamander populations. Streeter hopes to attend graduate school for environmental sustainability.

During their summer research together, Matlaga and Streeter updated the known information on the red-backed salamander, which involved sifting through all new and old literature on the creature, revising what has changed and filling in the gaps with their newly collected data and information.

“It’s so interesting how much goes on in nature that we never really take notice to,” Streeter says. “This position was a great experience as it allowed me to gain a greater understanding and knowledge that will prepare me for my future educational and career goals.”

SPARCnet is soon approaching its 10-year anniversary, a major milestone for a research collaboration that has grown to include nearly 50 researchers stretching as far north as Canada, east to Indiana and south to Virginia.

Given the rich data set that will result from the effort put forth by the network, many additional research questions can be addressed, and this is one of the emergent opportunities that participation in SPARCnet offers, Matlaga says.

“We know so little about the species that we have identified and there are so many species that we haven’t even identified yet. That’s exciting and I try to share that with my students,” Matlaga adds. “But we’re still losing knowledge so quickly as these species disappear, and the data we’re gathering now may be useful for us in ways we can’t even anticipate.”

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