Hut, Hut, Hike! A Team of Salamanders Tackle the Ecosystem
Postdoctoral researcher Dan Hocking '03 '12G has been studying red-backed salamanders for the past eight years, and has only seen their eggs in the late stages of development a handful of times.
It wasn’t just another walk in the woods at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Kingman Farm. In a small clearing, Hocking knelt down at the perimeter of a circle of red flags surrounding a three-foot cover board and brushed away the decomposing leaves. He dug his fingers under the edge and slowly pried it open. Three red-backed salamanders skittered from the light; one lay curled momentarily before leaving behind a cluster of eggs hanging like grapes from the underside of the board. “She’ll be back to guard her eggs for the rest of their development,” said Hocking of the female who had likely been wound around her brood for nearly two months.
He guessed the embryos, with their tails curled up around their bodies, were only a couple of weeks from hatching. They’re dark eyes were visible through the filmy egg sack as they flipped around with considerably vigor to increase their oxygen before Hocking gently returned the cover board to its original place.
Red-backed salamander eggs at Kingman Farm. (Photo by Dan Hocking).
Hocking appreciates the proximity of Kingman Farm, a New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) research and teaching facility in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA), to the Durham campus. During graduate school at the University of Missouri, Hocking had to drive nearly two hours to arrive at his research site and sometimes wouldn’t return home until the wee hours. Now, if it rains while he’s having dinner, he just grabs his headlamp, dashes out the door, and in ten minutes he’s able to do the research on these fully terrestrial animals that’s best conducted in the rain and under the cover of darkness.
As NHAES-funded researchers, Hocking and principle investigator Dr. Kim Babbitt work closely on a project that seeks to uncover the red-backed salamander’s role in ecosystem services. Together they have been studying the salamander's impact on plant growth, decomposition of leaf litter, increased germination of acorns, nitrogen cycling in the soil, insect damage on understory plants, and more to better understand this animal's contribution to the environment.
Hocking and Babbitt want to know what makes the red-backed salamander important to the ecosystem. And considering that they’ve determined there are three salamanders per meter squared, that’s no small part for this five-inch long woodland vertebrate. “If you can imagine two football fields put side by side, there would be thirty thousand animals in that area," says Hocking. "That got us thinking, if there are that many salamanders out here, just what are they doing in the ecosystem?”
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Photos courtesy Dan Hocking.