In case you've ever wondered, salamanders have personality. Not so much that they can do TV commercials, but some are aggressive, others are not.
Central Michigan University biology graduate student Shaundon Moore knows that from previous studies. What the second-year student wants to know now is if their personalities affect the surrounding ecosystem.
Amphibians are an important part of our ecosystem, said Moore's faculty advisor and fellow herpetologist Kirsten Nicholson, and the ones he is studying, though prevalent in Michigan, have not been studied much.
"He's had a lot of brilliant ideas looking at the behavior of salamanders," she said of Moore.
Specifically, Moore is testing to see if the more assertive red-backed salamanders in Michigan are reducing forest habitats by eating large amounts of prey — such as insects, worms, spiders and slugs — that normally would break down leaf litter, rotting logs, mushrooms and the like. That breakdown adds nutrients to the soil, supporting trees, plants and valuable organisms.
"Basically, we're trying to figure out if these aggressive personalities have a greater effect on the branch of the animal kingdom under them than less-aggressive salamanders," Moore said.
Evidence from his research so far shows that may be the case, Nicholson said.
"After I saw what was going on here, I felt there was really room for me to grow." — CMU student Shaundon Moore
For a broader perspective, personality might say a lot about the success of invasive species and the success of threatened species, Nicholson explained.
If you know the animal is very bold and it's an invasive species, that could be a big problem that you have to counteract, she said.
"On the other hand, when you are talking about a threatened species and you know something about their personalities, you might be able to predict how successful they are going to be in recovering and if there is something you can do about that.
"This is an untapped aspect of conservation research."
Learning through teaching
Moore's study is having a positive impact on him and three undergraduate seniors who are helping broaden the scope of the salamander study:
- Pamela Baldwin is trying to determine the intelligence of salamanders by testing whether they can learn to associate a rock with a reward.
- Jacob Horsley is testing whether head size and shape determine behavior.
- Chloe Bates researched whether predation influences coloration in the species. She did not find a link.
"The collaboration with them has helped me become a better mentor," Moore said. "I'm fortunate to have them in the lab."
Shaundon Moore is studying the impact of the red-backed salamander on its environment.
Moore feels fortunate to be at Central.
When the Atlanta, Georgia, resident was looking for a graduate school two years ago, CMU's affordable tuition and opportunities to develop as a biologist caught his attention.
The new Biosciences Building helped seal the deal, he said.
"After I saw what was going on here, I felt there was really room for me to grow, to learn about a variety of different fields from a variety of professors," he said.
"In this new building, I can literally just walk down the hall and be in a different field of science and talk with professors and students. I feel like I've gotten a lot of help just by taking a walk — it has really helped me grow."