Authored by Houston Chandler
Growing up as the son of two biologists, I spent the majority of my time around various biology departments. Summers usually consisted of exploring far-off places during yearly bird-watching trips or catching animals at biological field stations. Through these experiences, I rapidly developed a keen interest and appreciation for nature. While my parents studied birds and mammals, I generally preferred to catch salamanders in cold mountain streams or to pick snakes up off the road. These experiences formed some of my earliest memories, including one particular ratsnake that gave me quite a bite at a young age but that did not deter me.
Statesboro, Georgia, was home for almost my entire childhood, but by the time I graduated high school, I was ready to move on to somewhere new. That led me to attend college at Georgia College and State University (GCSU) in Milledgeville, GA, where I double majored in biology and environmental science. During my time at GCSU, I began to turn my love for nature, especially amphibians and reptiles, into a career in research and conservation. I developed a better understanding of what it takes to conduct high-quality research while completing various undergraduate research projects. I even got my first professional conservation experience working as an intern for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources during the summer of my junior year. I spent that summer working on several species of threatened and endangered fish and freshwater mussels across the state of Georgia. Even though this was very different than working with amphibians and reptiles, spending a summer doing research with conservation impacts convinced me that field biology was what I wanted to do.
I graduated from GCSU in 2012 and made the biggest move of my life by accepting a master’s position in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. It was fairly intimidating moving from a small liberal arts school to a large research university, but the opportunities at Virginia Tech were too good to pass up. Plus, I would have the opportunity to catch salamanders all over the Appalachians during the summer while conducting research in the Florida panhandle during the winter months. My research focused on ephemeral wetland communities embedded within pine flatwoods (a type of Longleaf Pine forest). These and other small, isolated wetlands were once a common landscape feature across the southeastern United States, but severe loss of wetland resources occurred in this region after European settlement. It was a thrill to get to work with some of the most diverse (40+ species in a single wetland) herpetofaunal communities in the country.
A major part of my research at Virginia Tech involved Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders (Ambystoma bishopi), which were listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2009. These secretive salamanders migrate to breeding wetlands each year where they breed and deposit eggs before returning to the surrounding pine flatwoods. My research focused on identifying how the loss of historic fire regimes combined with severe drought impacted these salamanders and other members of the aquatic community. I found that habitat changes that result from a lack of regular fire negatively impact aquatic communities by reducing aquatic invertebrate abundance, while amphibian communities are more likely to respond to changes in the length of time that wetlands are hold water.
In recent years, historic flatwoods salamander breeding wetlands have also been flooded for shorter time periods than the historical average, which has likely contributed to reduced population sizes and more frequent reproductive failure in these endangered salamanders. Even though my research (along with other Virginia Tech research) indicated that there are several negative habitat changes occurring in these wetlands, positive management actions have been taken to improve habitat quality for Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders and other members of the aquatic community. This includes targeting wetlands with prescribed fires and mitigating the impacts of severe drought by raising flatwoods salamanders in artificial ponds.
After completing my M.S. and subsequent time spent as a research associate on the same project, I was ready to move on to a more permanent position where I could put the skills that I had acquired through many years of school to use. Starting my new position with The Orianne Society feels like coming full circle in many ways. It put me back in Statesboro (something I never thought would happen) conducting research on some of the same species that I grew up with and will allow me to be an active participant in conserving the herpetofauna of the southeastern United States.