Photo by Chris Cousins

Chris Cousins, a graduate student in the Garcia lab, came in third in the OSU Grad Research Photo Contest.

A Columbia torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton kezeri) perched on a mossy, streamside log looks out over its domain, facing an uncertain future. This species of salamander is endemic to the Pacific Northwest, where it inhabits cold, fast-flowing headwater streams. Habitat loss and and alteration, along with climate change, are threatening the persistence of this species. This photograph was taken during rangewide surveys to assist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's decision to list this species by the Endangered Species act. This effort is led by OSU alumni Dr. Lindsey Thurman (USGS), and also supported by OSU faculty Dr. Tiffany Garcia, OSU Alumni Dr. Brooke Penaluna (USFS), and Dr. Dede Olson (USFS). Don't let its small size deceive you, this species plays an important role in the ecosystem it inhabits! This amphibian is active both in streams and riparian forests, making it an important link in the flow of nutrients between the two systems. Many of the streams they occupy are fishless, and as a result, salamanders are often the ecologically dominant vertebrates in these stream food webs and can have large impacts on the macroinvertebrate community.

Macroinvertebrates feed on leaf litter and other organic matter. Together, this intricate food web contributes to carbon storage and a local reduction in atmospheric CO2. OSU PhD student Christopher Cousins' research seeks to discover the ecological role that salamanders play in Pacific Northwest forests. By giving tangible ecological values to these amphibians, we can better understand what the forests would be like without them, and how the rippling effects would change our world.