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Influence of drought on salamander occupancy of isolated wetlands on the southeastern Coastal Plain of the United States

April 1, 2013

In the southeastern U.S., changes in temperature and precipitation over the last three decades have been the most dramatic in winter and spring seasons. Continuation of these trends could negatively impact pond-breeding amphibians, especially those that rely on winter and spring rains to fill seasonal wetlands, trigger breeding, and ensure reproductive success. From 2009 to 2012, we monitored Spring and Fall presence of aquatic stages (larval and paedomorphic, gilled adult) of a winter-breeding amphibian (the mole salamander, Ambystoma talpoideum) and used multi-season models to estimate occupancy, local colonization and extinction. Seasonal estimates of occupancy, corrected for imperfect detection, declined from 22.3 % of ponds in Spring 2009 to 9.9 % in Fall 2012. Our best supported model suggested that changes in occupancy were driven by increased rates of extinction that corresponded with drought-related drying of ponds. Based on uncertainty in climate change projections for the Southeast, we present a conceptual model of predicted changes in wetland hydroperiods across a landscape with projected decreases and increases in future precipitation. Such precipitation changes could alter wetland hydroperiods, facilitate extinctions of species adapted to short, intermediate or long hydroperiod environments and, ultimately, modify the composition of amphibian communities within freshwater wetland ecosystems.