Students' Salamander Research Focuses On Impact From Wildfires

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Though her goal is to attend dental school, biology major Hailey Cambria ’21 discovered recently that the chance to do fieldwork and study salamanders was something she could really sink her teeth into.

“In preparation for the research trip, I was researching the possible types of salamanders we would come across,” says Hailey, who minors in chemistry in addition to her concentration in integrative biology. “I expected the salamanders to be large and quick, which would make them hard to catch, when in actuality, they are smaller in size and quite calm. Overall, finding and catching the salamanders turned out to be much easier than I anticipated.”

Hailey, along with Natalie De La Cruz ’22 and Tatiana Rodriguez ’23, were the first students in Dr. Obed Hernández-Gómez’s research group to begin a series of fieldwork assignments during the 2020 fall semester to evaluate the effect of the 2020 Northern California wildfires on local salamander populations and their microbiomes. Their first trip took them to Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore where the Woodward Fire started last August and destroyed nearly 5,000 acres before it was 100 percent contained almost two months later.

According to Dr. Hernández-Gómez, the wildfires of 2020 are attributed to climate change, and data shows that fire frequencies might intensify with time. This poses a risk to wildlife, as populations may not be able to adapt to this rapid change. Salamanders are usually highly abundant in forest floors, and serve important roles in forest ecosystems, ranging from predators to prey. The natural history of these animals also makes them important indicators of ecosystem health.

“We will be collecting salamanders across several forests that burnt down last year and adjacent healthy forests. We plan on collecting skin microbial samples, assessing salamander health, and monitoring for infectious diseases,” says Dr. Hernández-Gómez, who said the proximity to these salamanders is one of the reasons he chose to work as a professor and evolutionary ecologist in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in the School of Health and Natural Sciences.

“Our goal is to evaluate how fires affect salamander health, their microbiome and conservation. Climate change is definitely contributing to the frequency of fires in our region. These salamanders bury themselves during the summer, so they likely survive the initial fire event. However, previous research has shown that burning can alter the ecology of forest dwelling species. Increased pressure from frequent wildfires may predispose California's salamanders to already threatening infectious diseases like chytridiomycosis and ranaviruses. Our results have the potential to influence how we proceed with the conservation management of these salamanders under what appears to be a new normal of high fire frequency across the Pacific Northwest.”
The opportunity to engage in such important research, especially as an undergraduate, attracted Hailey to Dominican from Rodriguez High School in Fairfield.

“During my senior year of high school, I was searching for a program that offered small class sizes and a close-knit community. Dominican offered both of these, in addition to a research methodology course for biology and chemistry majors, which was particularly interesting to me,” she says, “The continuous support from the faculty and advisors has been incredible, and I am so grateful for the opportunities that Dominican has offered me throughout my undergraduate career.”

Watch NBC Bay Area "Climate In Crisis" Segment On Dominican's Salamander Research

The opportunity to look for salamanders under charred remains from a wildfire, however, was not on her radar. She and other undergrads are studying several species of salamanders from other both burned and on-burned sites near Lake Berryessa and Big Basin State Park.

Each student has a specific question that they are addressing. For example, Tatiana is evaluating how fires influence the presence of amphibian chytrid fungus.

“I knew that Dominican had great science-related courses and this is what I am interested in most,” says Tatiana, who graduated from Salesian College Preparatory in Richmond. “I have worked with Dr. Hernández-Gómez during my rotations. I was familiar with working with salamanders prior to going out in the field. I expected it to be more difficult for us to find salamanders because we were in an environment that had been affected by fires. We actually found many salamanders not too far from one another.”

Natalie, a Woodside High School graduate, is using genetic analysis to identify the bacterial communities. She transferred to Dominican from Notre Dame de Namur University with a goal of ultimately joining Dominican’s Physician Assistant Studies program. Among her first discoveries in her study of salamanders was determining male and female species.

“My expectation for the research trip was collecting salamanders and extracting the DNA. But, we also had to weigh them as well as measuring their tail and body,” Natalie says. “This research opportunity does validate my decision to attend Dominican and influence my interest in genetics/microbiology.”

Hailey is helping quantify how well bacterial isolates from these salamanders inhibit the growth of amphibian chytrid fungus. While each student is focused on a specific topic, they will all participate in the molecular and microbial work.

“I am thrilled to work closely with Dr. OHG and my peers in a research lab to gain more knowledge about microbiology, genetics, field sampling, and more in-lab microbiology techniques, during my last semester at Dominican,” Hailey says. “I will be performing microbial isolation, extracting metabolites, and observing the functionality of the bacteria that we cultured in the field from the salamander’s skin. We will next identify the bacteria using DNA sequencing assays to further compare and contrast the differences between the bacteria. Then, we will test how efficiently metabolites produced by these bacteria influence the growth of amphibian chytrid fungus, in hopes of finding probiotic therapy candidate species.”

For these undergraduates, the opportunity to do fascinating and meaningful research attracted them to Dominican as well as the close relationships they can develop with their professors. It connects them with teachers and mentors such as Dr. Hernández-Gómez.

“I appreciate that I can engage students in the classroom and nature with ease. This is especially important in genetic/microbial work, where it's usually hard to build a connection between the focus of a study and the sterile laboratory environment,” Dr. Hernández-Gómez says. “By catching, swabbing and measuring their own salamanders, I think the students will build a stronger connection with these animals.”

They also can have fun doing it. Getting a chance to move from a laboratory indoors on campus to study in a real-world setting outdoors leading to solving climate change issues is a bonus. Plus, the salamanders are cute.

“Whether they pursue a degree in conservation science or not, the students are learning how to collect microbial samples from living beings, perform genetic analyses, and practice their microbiology laboratory skills,” Dr. Hernández-Gómez says. “When remembering their interactions with these animals, I hope the students are able to reflect on their ecological importance and the factors that currently threaten their existence.”

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