- by Mount Saint Mary College
Mount Saint Mary College

During a research trip to the Inyo Mountains of California to investigate rare desert-dwelling salamanders, Mount Saint Mary College associate Biology professor Douglas Robinson left no stone unturned – literally.

The Inyo Mountains, located on the western edge of Death Valley, are home to the elusive Batrachoseps campi. Also known simply as the Inyo Mountains Salamander, the species’ current population size is considered “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the gold-standard for species extinction risk.

Christopher Norment, PhD, professor emeritus of Environmental Science and Biology at SUNY Brockport and Robinson’s former undergraduate advisor, has been studying these salamanders for the last decade. Recently, he invited Robinson to join him in his research.

The two scholars were limited by the extreme heat and by the mountainous terrain, which required them to hike between 45 minutes and 8 hours to reach their destination. During the study, Robinson and Norment reached elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet.

The real work began once they arrived at their destinations in the mountain canyons: “You get into these sites and you start flipping over cover objects,” Robinson said. “Getting close to them is the tricky part. The springs and seeps the salamanders are close to are surrounded by 15-foot-tall trees – willows, mesquite, and desert olive – that are in high density, with some generously apportioned with thorns.”

The salamanders, which are lungless and rely on moist skin in order to breathe, typically stay under rocks, logs, and foliage to avoid the brutal sun and prevent their bodies from drying out in mere hours. But despite such an inhospitable environment, the salamanders have done well for themselves.

“It’s amazing that these animals have survived for millions of years in this really harsh environment,” said Robinson. “[But] their low population numbers suggest that they’re having a tough go right now.”

The weather patterns over the years in the Inyo Mountains area have become more prone to punishing rains known as cloudbursts, which deliver massive amounts of precipitation in a short period of time. One might think more rain in a dry climate would be helpful, but not if it comes at the expense of flash flooding.

In the summertime, the ground is so dry it becomes “like concrete,” Robinson noted. So instead of the rainwater being absorbed, it pools up and flows quickly down the canyons, taking much of the area’s vegetation – and the cover objects integral to the survival of the salamanders – with it.

One might wonder why Robinson and Norment are making the effort to study these salamanders. Why care about a species that’s nearly impossible to find and seems to be hurtling towards extinction?

“Maybe we can learn something about their biology that could be beneficial to us,” said Robinson. “But also, let’s just appreciate that this thing can survive in such a harsh environment and learn more about them while we still have them.”

Robinson and his colleagues are creating academic bonds with Mount students through experiential programs like the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), in which Mount students work with faculty mentors on their own original research projects.

“I started my research career working with Chris because of the opportunities he provided to me at SUNY Brockport as an undergraduate,” said Robinson. “This is the sort of relationship we try to establish with [Mount] students as well.”


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