Assistant Professor of Biology, Kristen Cecala, was awarded a grant from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The funding will provide summer support for Sewanee students to conduct research with Professor Cecala on predictors of salamander distributions on the Cumberland Plateau.
Specifically, students will evaluate variables that limit the distribution of the Cumberland Dusky Salamander, a recently described species only found on the Cumberland Plateau. By collecting data about salamander abundance, students will evaluate the relative impacts of climate change and habitat loss on the salamander’s distribution. Cecala highlighted the importance of this research – “We know that amphibians are already responding to changes in temperature and precipitation, yet we lack an understanding of how climate will interact with a human-shaped landscape to influence amphibians.” This project will not only provide important ecological knowledge, it will also provide an opportunity for students to develop critical skills in field monitoring for rare species and in the mathematical models necessary to predict how the distribution of this species will change in the future.
“This research is also important to conserving biodiversity on the Cumberland Plateau” said Cecala, “because we predict that as climate becomes warmer, species will move upslope to remain in their preferred climate. Unfortunately on the Cumberland Plateau, species are limited in this ability, so locating habitats for protection that also provide a climate refuge is essential for their long-term persistence in the region.”
Students in the Applied Animal Ecology Lab led by Cecala have also been studying the role of temperature on development and survival of salamanders in Lake Torian on the Sewanee Golf Course. Undergraduate researcher Lindsey Liles commented that she felt she was “saving the world, one salamander at a time” and that students see themselves as those responsible for developing solutions for the future.
“This is a well deserved recognition of the outstanding work that Professor Cecala and her students have accomplished and is particularly noteworthy as she has only been with the University for a little over a year,” said Robert Bachman, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Student-faculty collaborative research such as this is a hallmark of the Sewanee experience, which seeks to provide deep and meaningful learning experiences beyond the classroom. Undergraduate research, which involves making new knowledge, is one of the most powerful learning experiences a student can have.”