New publication: urbanization and stress in threatened salamanders

Jollyville Plateau Salamander. Photo by Nathan Bendik.

Urbanization has the potential to induce major changes in freshwater systems. Expected increases in human populations will likely amplify these changes and lead to the overall degradation of habitat quality within these systems. Such habitat alterations may function as stressors that can affect glucocorticoid stress hormones in freshwater vertebrates. Examining changes in physiological stress may provide early warning indicators of environmental threats and provide insights into the sub-lethal effects of habitat degradation. The threatened, obligate aquatic, Jollyville Plateau salamander (Eurycea tonkawae) is found in urbanized and rural catchments within central Texas and has experienced population declines in heavily urbanized areas. We tested the prediction that salamanders from urbanized sites would have different levels of baseline corticosterone (CORT) and muted or no stress responsiveness (to an external stressor, agitation) compared to salamanders from rural sites. We collected water-borne hormones to measure baseline CORT release rates (n = 3 years) and stress responsiveness (n = 2 years) in salamanders inhabiting urbanized and rural sites. We also measured “background” CORT from stream water alone at each visit. For the first two years we found that baseline CORT was higher in urbanized sites but not in the third year. Across years and populations, salamanders showed stress responsiveness, suggesting that, even if physiological stress is higher in urbanized areas, it has not resulted in the impairment of the hypothalamic–pituitary–interrenal axis. Background CORT was higher in urban than in rural streams and was positively correlated with mean baseline CORT of salamanders across populations and years. Our results contribute to the goal of finding early warning indicators of environmental threats by demonstrating a relationship between urbanization and the physiological status of E. tonkawae, using a rapid, non-invasive measure of stress.

Gabor CR, Davis DR, Kim DS, Zabierek KC, Bendik NF. 2018. Urbanization is associated with elevated corticosterone in Jollyville Plateau Salamanders. Ecological Indicators, 85:229–235. [PDF]