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Friends in Low Places: How Salamanders Help Mitigate the Impacts of Climate Change

Photo of Female Ensatina salamander being weighed to access condition. Garth Hodgson, USDA Forest ServiceFemale Ensatina salamander being weighed to access condition. Garth Hodgson, USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Woodland salamanders perform a vital ecological service in American forests by slowing the release of carbon in the form of leaf litter on the forest floor. The role of a single individual is simple and of minor influence, but the magnitude of the effort of thousands of individuals per hectare (one hectare = 2.47 acres) has great ecological significance on the forest carbon cycle.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Welsh, Hart 
Research Location : Douglas fir/hardwood forest in the Mattole River watershed near Ettersberg, Humboldt County, California
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2014
Highlight ID : 683


Climate change research to inform and enhance adaptation and mitigation has become a significant focus around the world. Climate changes occur when greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (C02) and methane (CH4) are released into the atmosphere. Forest Service scientists investigated the role of Ensatina, a complex of lungless salamanders found in coniferous forests, oak woodland and chaparral from British Columbia all the way down to Baja California in Mexico, in regulating invertebrate numbers and leaf litter retention in a Northern California forest. They found that the Ensatina facilitates the capture of carbon in leaf litter, an estimated 200 kilograms/hectare (or 441 lbs/2.47 acres) of carbon sequestered by a single individual, by feeding on invertebrates such as beetles, earthworms, snails, or antsthat would otherwise release this carbon as C02 and CH4 through their consumption of fallen leaves and other forest debris. These small, seldom-seen animals are the most common vertebrate species in American forests, frequently numbering in the thousands per hectare. Forest Service research suggests that woodland salamanders play a significant role in regulating the capture of carbon, thereby affecting the entire carbon cycle in forests. The potential magnitude of the effect of woodland salamanders on carbon sequestration is staggering, and poses a provocative new perspective on the contribution of biodiversity in general, and woodland salamanders in particular, to forest and global sustainability.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Michael Best, Humboldt State University