Biology Faculty Member Awarded the Raymond D. Semlitsch Award for Early Career Excellence

University of the South Biology professor Kristen Cecala was recognized by the Herpetologists’ League at the Annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in New Orleans on July 7. The inaugural Semlitsch Award was given to recognize Professor Cecala’s research evaluating how rising temperatures impact interactions of southeastern salamanders. The Semlitsch Award was initiated in memory of Dr. Raymond D. Semlitsch to support cutting edge research by an early career professional in the field of ecology, evolution, and conservation of amphibians and reptiles.

 The award is associated with a $5,000 research grant for Professor Cecala to support an undergraduate research project. Research projects conducted in collaboration with undergraduates Lindsey Liles, C’16, and Mary Lou Hoffacker, C’17, and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute have demonstrated that competitive outcomes among salamanders may change at rising temperatures. This project will build on previous research to evaluate whether behavioral interactions between species at elevated temperatures also change and predict outcomes previously observed. This research is important because as temperatures climb, refuge from warm temperatures will be critical for the long-term persistence of lungless salamanders yet their access to refuge is often controlled by interactions with other species. Because species have evolved at different climate regimes, those more closely adapted to cooler temperatures may decline faster than predicted because of warming temperatures and limited access to refuge through decreased competitive abilities. Cecala said, “Determining the mechanisms through which climate will affect organisms is key to prioritizing conservation funding and designing mitigation strategies.”

 The proposed research will build on Kailey Bissell’s, C’18, summer research. Kailey discovered that the intensity of salamander interactions increased until their preferred temperatures and after which declined. The funding associated with this award will allow Kailey to evaluate interactions within and among species with ranges that vary in elevation and spatial extent all predicted to impact species’ sensitivity to shifts in temperature. This research has the potential to predict climate-induced endangerment for species inhabiting high elevations of the southeastern United States.