The southern gray-cheeked salamander roaming the forest floor.
Photo: Christopher Mayerl

Hidden throughout Southern Appalachia is the world’s most diverse salamander population. But while these small amphibians have long been considered vulnerable as climate change shrinks suitable habitats, new research suggests that in at least some parts of the salamander capital of the world, the creatures may be able to hack their way into surviving a hotter future.

“In the core of their range, it actually gets better for salamanders,” Eric Riddell, a postdoctoral researcher at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley and lead author of the study, told Earther. “That’s a very different story from what has been talked about previously.”

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The new study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, incorporates field work conducted over the spring, summer, and fall of 2015, as well as work done in the lab. Riddell and his colleagues went out to the murky forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains at night to collect a total of 300 salamanders from seven different species. “Basically, I was nocturnal as well,” Riddell, who as a PhD student at Clemson University at the time, told Earther. “I turned into a salamander.”

The creatures then underwent field and lab experiments, where the researchers tested how their bodies adjusted to stressful environments—namely, warm temperatures and reduced humidity levels—using predictions from the worst-case scenario for CO2 emissions by the end of the century to guide them. They looked at specific traits, such as the creatures’ metabolic rate, which Riddell defines as the animals’ “cost of living” based on how much energy they expend, and their water loss rate, which determines how quickly the animals become dehydrated.

They found that salamanders in some pockets of the mountainous range were remarkably capable of adjusting these traits to cope with changes in their environment, reducing their risk of extinction by up to 72 percent in some areas. For contrast, statistical predictions suggested that 70 to 85 percent of the salamanders habitat would be unsuitable for salamanders come 2080. 

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The study also produced a specific map that can inform how experts tackle conservation efforts by locating some of the unusually resilient populations and locating areas that might be under a greater threat due to global warming. According to Riddell, areas that are more suitable for salamanders under future climate change should be prioritized for conservation.

“In the world of amphibian conservation, things can be pretty bleak,” Walter Smith, an amphibian expert at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and was unaffiliated with the study, told Earther. “This study gives us some hope.”

Smith pointed out that the bulk of the discussion surrounding how salamanders will respond to climate change revolves around statistical models, which are limited by the kind of data available. The new study adds a different angle to the picture by roping in some of the complexities that can only be gleaned by collecting hard data on the creatures’ biological responses.

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To be clear, the study’s findings don’t mean that salamander populations in Southern Appalachia are necessarily thriving. According to Riddell, the current scientific literature offers mixed results on whether or not many populations are declining, increasing, or stable.

Further research is also needed in order to figure out if the responses observed in the study are specific to the group of species considered, or if the responses of this set of salamanders that can be applied across most of the 77 species of Appalachian salamanders.

And salamanders remain vulnerable to a plethora of other threats like habitat destruction, pollution, pet trade, and disease—some of them stemming from a deadly fungus. What’s more, if warming continues beyond the end of the century, many salamanders will essentially be pushed out of their current environments. “They won’t be able to keep up,” Riddell continued.

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The new findings offer hope that salamanders might have a little more time. It’s up to us to make the most of it.