Hindcasting Historical Breeding Conditions for an Endangered Salamander in Ephemeral Wetlands of the Southeastern USA: Implications of Climate Change

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The hydroperiod of ephemeral wetlands is often the most important characteristic determining amphibian breeding success, especially for species with long development times. In mesic and wet pine flatwoods of the southeastern United States, ephemeral wetlands were a common landscape feature. Reticulated flatwoods salamanders (Ambystoma bishopi), a federally endangered species, depend exclusively on ephemeral wetlands and require at least 11 weeks to successfully metamorphose into terrestrial adults. We empirically modeled hydroperiod of 17 A. bishopi breeding wetlands by combining downscaled historical climate-model data with a recent 9-year record (2006–2014) of observed water levels. Empirical models were subsequently used to reconstruct wetland hydrologic conditions from 1896–2014 using the downscaled historical climate datasets. Reconstructed hydroperiods for the 17 wetlands were highly variable through time but were frequently unfavorable for A. bishopi reproduction (e.g., only 61% of years, using a conservative estimate of development time [12 weeks], were conducive to larval development and metamorphosis). Using change-point analysis, we identified significant shifts in average hydroperiod over the last century in all 17 wetlands. Mean hydroperiods were shorter in recent years than at any other point since 1896, and thus less suitable for A. bishopi reproduction. We suggest that climate change will continue to impact the reproductive success of flatwoods salamanders and other ephemeral wetland breeders by reducing the number of years these wetlands have suitable hydroperiods. Consequently, we emphasize the importance of conservation and management for mitigating other forms of habitat degradation, especially maintenance of high quality breeding sites where reproduction can occur during appropriate environmental conditions.