With the Year of the Salamander now in full swing, there’s no wonder why everyone seems to be talking about these little creatures… they are the new canary in the coal mine when it comes to understanding forest health.
Woodland salamanders, small, ground-dwelling or subterranean, and primarily nocturnal creatures, are a common species in North American forests; and researchers from the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station say they are reliable indicators of recovery in damaged forest ecosystems.
Research Wildlife Biologist Hartwell Welsh and Biological Science Technician Garth Hodgson conducted a study that looked at woodland salamanders in Mill Creek, an old-growth redwood forest in Northern California. The forest had been extensively logged for more than 100 years, which dramatically changed the dynamics of the forest ecosystem — altering the way trees grew, and removing much of the original habitat and native wildlife.
The study considered different parts of the forest, which were compared with reference old-growth stands on adjacent parklands, and found a positive relationship between salamander presence and body condition, and tree growth, development, and structural changes. The scientists discovered that when woodland salamanders are in higher abundances, it indicates a healthy recovering forest.
This research is important because old-growth forests are quickly diminishing, but they provide critical environmental services. According to the researchers, old-growth forests support the world's most species-diverse ecosystems and serve as unique carbon sinks which contain the largest land carbon stocks on the planet. This type of forest helps to capture carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise contribute to global warming.
The Mill Creek forest was recently attained by the California state park system, and is intended to have its logged-over areas restored to old-growth forestland. If successfully restored, it will help to sequester carbon and will provide homes for the rare and currently absent wildlife that once lived there.