Like Hagenbuch, Laurie Richmond was interested in learning more about the impact that forestry practices have on wildlife. Earlier research had shown that forest harvesting can cause significant declines in salamander populations. Richmond was curious about what managers could do to protect these small amphibians.
As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, Richmond collaborated with Professor Stephen Trombulak to assess the distribution of red-backed salamanders – the most common variety in eastern North America – with respect to the various objects they use as cover in the Green Mountains. She visited eight mixed-deciduous forest stands, ranging in age from 58 to 145 years, and turned over every rock, log, and branch along numerous transects looking for salamanders.
“The big picture for me was to determine how forestry practices were affecting salamanders,” said Richmond, who is now a doctoral student in Seattle, studying fisheries. “The distribution of cover objects is important for salamanders, and in some ways, the cover objects are linked to forestry practices. If you can figure out which kind of objects salamanders favor, you could maybe find ways to develop forestry strategies that encourage those types of objects.
In her study area, Richmond found more salamanders under rocks than under woody objects, which she speculates may have to do with the tighter seal that rocks have to the ground. This seal keeps in moisture – which the salamanders, and their invertebrate prey, need in order to thrive. Similarly, she found more salamanders under large objects than under small objects, again, probably because the greater surface area touching the forest floor means it is likely to remain moist. She also found more salamanders under partially decomposed fibrous woody objects than under solid woody objects.
Of this latter result, she said: “If you think about levels of decay, a solid log can’t break apart, it’s hard and round; but a fibrous one has been around for a while, it’s been rained on a lot, and it’s almost mulchy. Fibrous ones have all kinds of microhabitats and lots of insects in them, and salamanders can burrow inside. So a fibrous woody object has more potential for habitat.”
Richmond hopes that forestry managers take into consideration the needs of salamanders when determining what to harvest and what to leave behind. She advocates partial harvests that leave enough canopy to ensure that the sun cannot completely dry out the remaining habitat. Equally important, she suggests leaving behind coarse woody debris to aid in the recovery of salamander populations.
“There’s a whole world of choices and selections being made by salamanders in relation to these objects,” Richmond said. “Without those objects, their options are severely limited.”