2023 Grant Program Recipients

Bryce Wade, University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Project: Assessing the broader applicability of site-specific estimates of landscape resistance to gene flow: A replicated conservation genetic assessment of Four-toed Salamanders (Hemidactylium scutatum) in Appalachia

Habitat degradation and fragmentation remain the most substantial threats for wildlife in an era of anthropogenic change. Isolation of populations increases the probability of local extirpation and larger collapse of metapopulations. Amphibians are especially at risk owing to specific habitat associations, limited dispersal ability, and sensitivity to changes in environmental conditions. Therefore, understanding the spatial arrangement of genetic diversity and the environmental factors that shape patterns of gene flow is essential for informed management of healthy amphibian populations. Pairing conservation genetic assessment and genetically derived models of connectivity (resistance surfaces) can inform a variety of important conservation management practices such as corridor planning and the removal of barriers to gene flow. I will collect genetic samples for a threatened amphibian, the Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum), across multiple sites in Appalachia. I will use a combination of next generation sequencing techniques, conservation genetic analyses, machine learning methods, and geospatial connectivity models to inform conservation decisions. This project will contribute data on gene flow patterns for a threatened salamander across its range, help develop best practices for using landscape genetic models to inform amphibian conservation management, and directly inform conservation practices for Four-toed Salamanders at my study sites.

Charlie Holguin, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Virginia Tech

Project: Investigating potential changes in salamander body size using historical records from Whitetop Mountain, Virginia

Globally, climate change is affecting environmental conditions. It is unknown how potential changes in temperature and precipitation will impact population demography and persistence. In Southern Appalachia, a salamander global hotspot hosting 20% of the world’s salamanders, the potential effects of climate change are unclear. We lack basic information on salamander life history traits, hindering our ability to predict the effects of climate change. I will investigate potential changes in the body size of 13 plethodontid salamanders over a 65-year period on Whitetop Mountain in Virginia. I will conduct a comparative analysis involving historical data and newly collected data to address how environmental conditions have influenced salamander growth and demography for different species in the family Plethodontidae.

Gretchen Hilt, Department of Biological Sciences, Southeastern Louisiana University

Project: Utilizing environmental DNA as a conservation tool to detect and monitor rare Georgia Blind Cave Salamander (Eurycea wallacei) in understudied groundwater habitats

The Georgia Blind Cave Salamander, Eurycea wallacei, is known from only a single river shed in the Floridian Aquifer System in southern Georgia and northern Florida. This interesting character inhabits groundwater environments that are often inaccessible due to the need for cave-diving experience or simply the physical inability to access due to geological barriers. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is becoming increasingly popular to study rare, threatened, and endangered species across many aquatic, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems. eDNA approaches are particularly attractive for species living in habitats that are difficult to access or sample, such as E. wallacei. I will conduct a field survey to detect the presence and better elucidate the geographic distribution of E. wallacei using an eDNA approach in highly sensitive, understudied cave systems. Determining detection thresholds of E. wallacei eDNA will further enhance a safe, cost-effective, and efficient detection assay.

Kiersten Nelson, Odum School of Ecology, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, University of Georgia

Project: Assessing alternative conservation strategies to optimize post-release performance of head-started Gopher Frogs (Lithobates capito)

The Gopher Frog (Lithobates capito) is a medium-sized terrestrial anuran that is native to longleaf pine ecosystems in the Southeastern United States Coastal Plain. Head-starting is a vital conservation tool for the at-risk Gopher Frog, yet current methods result in low survival of released juveniles. This study aims to investigate alternative release strategies to maximize the post-release survival of juvenile head-started Gopher Frogs. To do this, I will conduct a radio telemetry study to examine how time of year, age, and burrow size affects post-release movement, behavior, and survival of juvenile Gopher Frogs. This research will provide managers and conservation practitioners with recommendations for release strategies that will increase juvenile survival to optimize the success of head-starting programs.

Lauren Fuchs, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Project: Influence of land use on the snake skin microbiome and potential implications for the host’s primary innate immune defense against ophidiomycosis

Snake populations on a global scale have been contending with a severe and often fatal disease called ophidiomycosis, which is caused by the fungal pathogen Ophidiomyces ophidiicola (Oo). Susceptibility to Oo and disease manifestation vary significantly between hosts and across spatial extents, however the factors that influence these patterns are still unclear and likely involve complex interactions between the host and its environment. There is growing consideration for the role of the host skin microbiome as a first line of defense against Oo. Geographic and habitat level differences of the skin microbiome, as well as disease prevalence have been reported, however the specific characteristics of the landscape that may influence these patterns, such as urbanization, have yet to be explored. My research will investigate the role of landscape use as it relates not only to Oo prevalence, but also to differences in the skin microbiome, which can help elucidate prevalence trends. Results of this work will be valuable in informing effective land management and mitigation strategies.

These grants are made possible through generous funding from the Chandler Family Foundation.