Amphibians are declining due to a host of factors, including disease, habitat loss andclimate change. But the most far-reaching of these threats, a phenomenon called data deficiency, gets dangerously little attention.
While it might sound drab on the surface, data deficiency is a huge hurdle in conservation. It occurs when researchers have limited data on a species’ basic biology. These knowledge gaps can include how a species responds to environmental changes or even where it lives in the first place. Without this information, designing effective conservation initiatives can be next to impossible.
This is the case with the green salamander, one of the most unique amphibians in the salamander-rich Appalachian Mountains. The only truly green-colored salamander in eastern North America, the green salamander is an extreme habitat specialist. It inhabits narrow cracks and crevices in rock outcrops, occasionally making forays into the forest canopy by climbing nearby trees.
Their secretive lifestyle makes green salamanders tough to locate and even harder to study. In fact, little is known about exactly where this species lives across much of the Appalachians – a frightening reality since some salamander populations have declined or disappeared in recent decades.
Three years ago, our laboratory began partnering with researchers at Virginia Highlands Community College to address this data deficiency across the heart of the Appalachians in southwest Virginia. While our work has involved more traditional research methods, including screening for amphibian pathogens and determining what habitat characteristics green salamanders prefer, we were faced with an intimidating question: How do you understand the distribution of a species that lives in such an inaccessible habitat?
Our answer, thanks to a group of creative University of Virginia’s College at Wise undergraduates, came from thinking outside of the scientific box. We decided to forego traditional field surveys and involve the local communities instead. The people of rural Appalachia are known for their strong ties to the land and wildlife. Our goal is to see if local residents are encountering green salamanders and, if so, if their knowledge can address the data deficiency plaguing efforts to understand this species.
We’ve been placing advertisements at local businesses to describe our initiative, and students have developed smartphone app-based trail guides for hikers and rock climbers who frequent areas where we suspect salamanders live. In return, residents report salamander sightings by sharing photographs with our research team or through the popular citizen science platform iNaturalist.
It might seem as though asking residents to catalog a species that even trained biologists have trouble locating would be a futile effort, but local residents have turned this idea on its head. To date they’ve submitted observations that have led to the verification of nearly 50 new populations of this species. Reports have come from places as unlikely as one resident’s front yard.
The knowledge gained from these citizens has fueled new, detailed scientific studies of green salamanders that are beginning to suggest that this species might not be as rare as we thought – a silver lining in a part of the conservation world often filled with bad news.
All photos are owned by Dr. Walter Smith, and cannot be used or reproduced without permission.