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Can the eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) persist in an acidified landscape?

April 22, 2016

Hardwood forests of eastern North America have experienced decades of acidic deposition, leading to soil acidification where base cation supply was insufficient to neutralize acid inputs. Negative impacts of soil acidity on amphibians include disrupted embryonic development, lower growth rates, and habitat loss. However, some amphibians exhibit intraspecific variation in acid tolerance, suggesting the potential for local adaptation in areas where soils are naturally acidic. The eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) is a highly abundant top predator of the northern hardwood forest floor. Early research found that P. cinereus was sensitive to acidic soils, avoiding substrates with pH < 3.8 and experiencing decreased growth rates in acidic habitats. However, recent studies have documented P. cinereus populations in lower pH conditions than previously observed, suggesting some populations may persist in acidic conditions. Here, we evaluated relationships between organic horizon soil pH and P. cinereus abundance, adult health (body size and condition), and microhabitat selection, based on surveys of 34 hardwood forests in northeastern United States that encompass a regional soil pH gradient. We found no associations between soil pH and P. cinereus abundance or health, and observed that this salamander used substrates with pH similar to that available, suggesting that pH does not mediate their fine-scale distributions. The strongest negative predictor of P. cinereus abundance was the presence of dusky salamanders (Desmognathus spp.), which were most abundant in the western Adirondacks. Our results indicate that P. cinereus occupies a wider range of soil pH than has been previously thought, which has implications for their functional role in forest food webs and nutrient cycles in acid-impaired ecosystems. Tolerance of P. cinereus for more acidic habitats, including anthropogenically acidified forests, may be due to local adaptation in reproductively isolated populations and/or generalist life history traits that allow them to exploit a wider resource niche.

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