James Patterson/The New York Times

April 20, 2022

Cornell Student Discusses Research on Salamanders, How to Prepare for Next Year’s Migration

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On March 19, Paula Blanco-Ortiz ’24, shared her research on non-invasive detection methods for Blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders at the 23rd Annual National Conference for McNair Scholars and Undergraduate Research.

Blanco-Ortiz reported that these salamanders are species of concern for the general lack of knowledge about their mating behaviors and how easily their environment is destroyed by human activities, such as over-fertilization of grass and insecticides. 

“We define a species as being of special concern if its essential behavior, specifically behaviors associated with breeding, hibernation, reproduction, feeding, sheltering, migration and overwintering, are being disrupted,” Ortiz said. 

The difference between an endangered and a special concern species is that a special concern species is at no imminent risk of becoming extinct but is especially vulnerable to abrupt changes in their environment and is susceptible to being endangered. An endangered species is in imminent danger of becoming extinct.

To understand the salamander population size, Ortiz’s lab continues to refine environmental DNA testing, pioneered by Prof. David Lodge, ecology and evolutionary biology. 

eDNA testing works by isolating miniscule DNA strands, which can come from an organism simply making contact with collected water samples. The researcher will then make hundreds of copies of a strand through a polymerase chain reaction and filter out the species of interest through a mitochondrial DNA filter, thus providing a general estimate of how many salamanders are in or in close proximity to the water. 

eDNA testing does not rely on physical capture, observation or handling. The non-invasive nature of this type of detection is important when handling endangered species, and species of special concern, because the animal’s environment does not have to be disturbed to collect data on the species. 

“We are using small water samples to find species in aquatic ecosystems without ever having to touch or disturb them,” Ortiz said. “A big part of conservation for endangered species is preserving ecosystems and ensuring population health. It’s hard to do that without potentially disturbing the species through handling.”

eDNA testing mitigates the disruption of the environments of niche organisms while also keeping a check on their population count. 

Ortiz suggested encroaching upon their environment may be doing some damage. 

“Generally, habitat alteration is what most affects salamander species in New York,” Ortiz said. “This means habitat destruction, encroachment and other forms of degradation as a direct result of human activities.”

Ortiz also suggested using empathy to mitigate disturbance of salamanders’ environment. 

“Picture yourself as the salamander: How would you feel if somebody lifted your log home and then left you out and exposed, or randomly took you to a completely different place altogether,” Ortiz said. “People should be both gentle and mindful of leaving everything the way it was when they entered.”

Limiting human exposure to their environments can benefit these “special concern” salamanders, especially as we begin to think about next year’s migration. 

As next spring approaches, Ortiz advised that students do not disrupt the environment, wear bug spray if handling the salamanders or head to salamander sites without disinfecting your shoes and gear first. Not following these steps could harm the salamanders by transporting diseases or other pollutants into their environment.

Paula Blanco-Ortiz’s lab, Cornell Wildlife Health lab at the College of Veterinary Medicine, is under the direction of Krysten Schuler, and this research was developed in collaboration with Alyssa Kaganer at Cornell University.