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Stream salamanders as indicators of stream quality in Maryland, USA

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Biological indicators are critical to the protection of small, headwater streams and the ecological values they provide. Maryland and other state monitoring programs have determined that fish indicators are ineffective in small streams, where stream salamanders may replace fish as top predators. Because of their life history, physiology, abundance, and ubiquity, stream salamanders are likely representative of biological integrity in these streams. The goal of this study was to determine whether stream salamanders are effective indicators of ecological conditions across biogeographic regions and gradients of human disturbance. During the summers of 2001 and 2002, we intensively surveyed for stream salamanders at 76 stream sites located west of the Maryland Coastal Plain, sites also monitored by the Maryland Biological Stream Survey (MBSS) and City of Gaithersburg. We found 1,584 stream salamanders, including all eight species known in Maryland, using two 15 × 2 m transects and two 4 m2 quadrats that spanned both stream bank and channel. We performed removal sampling on transects to estimate salamander species detection probabilities, which ranged from 0.67-0.85. Stepwise regressions identified 15 of 52 non-salamander variables, representing water quality, physical habitat, land use, and biological conditions, which best predicted salamander metrics. Indicator development involved (1) identifying reference (non-degraded) and degraded sites (using percent forest, shading, riparian buffer width, aesthetic rating, and benthic macroinvertebrate and fish indices of biotic integrity); (2) testing 12 candidate salamander metrics (representing species richness and composition, abundance, species tolerance, and reproductive function) for their ability to distinguish reference from degraded sites; and (3) combining metrics into an index that effectively discriminated sites according to known stream conditions. Final indices for Highlands, Piedmont, and Non-Coastal Plain regions comprised four metrics: number of species, number of salamanders, number of intolerant salamanders, and number of adult salamanders, producing classification efficiencies between 87% and 90%. Partial validation of these indices was obtained when a test of the number of salamanders metric produced an 82% correct classification of 618 MBSS sites surveyed in 1995-97. This study supports the use of stream salamander monitoring and a composite stream salamander index of biotic integrity (SS-IBI) to determine stream quality in Maryland.

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