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Climate change blamed for shrinking salamanders

Mountain top coal mining is also having a devastating affect on the forests in Appalachia.
Mountain top coal mining is also having a devastating affect on the forests in Appalachia.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Salamanders in Appalachia are getting smaller, a phenomenon some researchers are blaming on climate change particularly in the Great Smoky Mountains where balsam and fir forests have been dying for various reasons including increased pollution and invasions of destructive insects. As a result the areas are becoming warmer and drier than in the past, forcing native salamanders and other cold-blooded animals to find a way to adapt to their surroundings, or perish. "As their temperature rises, all their physiological rates increase," stated Clemson University biologist Michael Sears."All else being equal, that means there is less energy for growth."

In coming to these conclusions, scientists over 9,500 adult salamander specimens of varying species collected by museums since 1957 and compared them to those found in the same sites areas in Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia in 2011 and 2012.

What they found was that 6 of the species were approximately 8% smaller after 19890 than in earlier decades, while 1 species actually increased in size and 8 others showed no change at all. "We point to climate change as our best guess of what we think is going on," said Karen Lips, an associate professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Biology who co-author ed the study with Nicholas Caruso of the University of Alabama and Dean Adams of Iowa State University.

They study is not only important to understanding the little amphibians, but how changes in their physiology also affects other animals in their habitats.

"Because they are so abundant they are a food source for birds, snakes and small mammals, things like racoons, possums and shrews," Lips said. If there are smaller salamanders "other animals will have to eat more, it will take them more time to find food and life becomes more difficult for everybody."