Appalachian stream salamander behaviors change following riparian disturbance
Human activities frequently impact ecosystems resulting in wildlife declines, yet animals often continue to persist at low densities in impaired environments. Because habitat selection behaviors have evolved to maximize an individual’s fitness, evaluating the behavior of animals that choose to inhabit degraded habitats provides insight into wildlife declines and effective targets for management. The objectives of our study were to evaluate whether fine-scale habitat selection behaviors differed between individuals inhabiting disturbed environments relative to undisturbed habitats. Specifically, we evaluated the potential selection and movement biases by blackbellied salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) to different contexts depending on the status of the surrounding riparian forest. We evaluated habitat selection decisions and movement made by individuals in response to common cues that vary in forested and disturbed habitats including light, cover, predator presence, and also assessed the ability of individuals to habituate to different light regimes common to disturbed areas.
Salamander individuals from deforested riparian zones were (1) less responsive to light, (2) preferred warmer temperatures, and (3) exhibited greater reactivity than did salamanders from undisturbed riparian zones. Individuals originating from deforested habitats had poor body conditions, indicating that deforested streams are suboptimal relative to forested habitats. Although evidence suggests that salamanders decline following riparian disturbance, our results indicated that salamander individuals that exhibit high behavioral plasticity are capable of persisting in altered habitats, and these changes may influence the outcomes of future stressors.