Climate Cast Series

The red-cheeked salamander is a pretty special animal—they breathe through their skin and they don’t live anywhere else in the world except in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. How will climate change affect these unique animals?

MP3 Audio Version


Title: Climate Change and the Red-cheeked Salamander

Ranger Joy: Welcome to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spanning the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines, it is known as the salamander capital of the world!

Hi I’m ranger Joy and I’ll be introducing you to a researcher studying climate change on one of our 30 different species of salamanders.

Here at the park we invite researchers to come study different aspects of the park especially the effects of climate change, so that we can make better management decisions and provide better information for you the visitor.

One question we have is will salamanders be able to adapt to a climate that might be warmer and drier?

I’ll let Amy introduce herself and tell you more about her research here

Amy Luxbacher: My name is Amy Luxbacher, I’m a graduate student from the University of Minnesota and I’m here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to study salamanders, my research focuses on the red-cheeked salamander.

The red-cheek is a pretty special animal, it doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world except in this national park so it has a very restricted distribution we would call it a montane endemic species which is just a fancy way of saying its species that only occurs on these mountains here

Ranger Joy: Like this blue ridge spring salamander the red-cheeks are members of the lung-less family of salamanders, which means they breathe through their skin and must remain moist. This also means that salamanders are sensitive to the oils and chemicals on your hands so we handle salamanders as little as possible.

Amy Luxbacher: A lot of salamanders live in or near water so it’s easy for them to stay moist but there are several species of lung-less salamanders including the red-cheeked salamander that are terrestrial meaning they complete their entire life cycle on land.

All that moisture in the air that gives these mountains their name and their distinctive appearance also makes this area ideal for salamanders to live.

Being a terrestrial salamander has some benefits because they can live in areas away from water where other salamander can’t and they can consume different foods.

But one negative consequence of being a terrestrial salamander is that evaporative water loss can be a big issue.

The red-cheeked salamander has a very narrow range of conditions in which it can successfully live and reproduce and that only includes certain areas in great smoky mountains national park that are above 3000’ in elevation and where the temperatures remain cool and the humidity remains high.

What tends to happen in mountains during periods when the earth is warming is that warm dry conditions that typically occur at low elevations expand and move up the mountains, and as that’s happening the cool moist climate conditions that occur at the tops of mountains get pushed further and further up.

For species like the red-cheeked salamander that already lives at the tops of mountains the risk is that the narrow range of climate conditions in which it can live may disappear entirely leaving these salamanders literally high and dry at the tops of the mountains.

One focus of my research is on how climate change may affect the red-cheeked salamander.

It can be very difficult how to predict how a species will respond to climate change, but the approach that I’m taking with the red-cheeks is to use the past as a window to the future.

And what I mean by that is that we know the climate has changed dramatically in this region over that past 21,000 or so years from being much cooler than today to being the climate we experience today.

I’m sampling individuals from across the red-cheek’s geographic distribution, and then I’ll compare the DNA that I extract from these samples to determine how closely related individuals are and infer how many ancestral populations there were.

Then I can evaluate whether the predicted distribution based on past climate matches genetic data.

Ranger Joy: Using maps of the past distribution of red-cheeked salamanders inferred from physiological data and climate maps of the smokies compared with genetic data, Amy will either find support for her hypothesis that red-cheeked populations have moved with suitable climate conditions over time, or find that this hypothesis is unsupported, suggesting that the salamanders’ past distribution was influenced by factors other than shifting climate.

Amy Luxbacher: As a follow up to this work, I’ll also be using models of future climate scenarios to project where the future distribution of the red-cheeked salamanders might be.

So then I’ll have theses inferences from the past as well as projections for the future that I can share with the park staff here so they can use this information to plan for the future protect the red-cheeked salamanders.