Effects of Forestry-Driven Changes to Groundcover and Soil Moisture on Amphibian Desiccation, Dispersal, and Survival

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enclosure, groundcover, land use, management, movement, permeability, silviculture

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Over 80% of amphibian species that are declining are forest dependent. Forestry practices are a major cause of forest alterations globally, and it is well documented that clearcutting can contribute to amphibian declines. However, there might be adverse effects of forestry practices other than clearcutting. For example, planting overstory trees in rows (plantations) can change groundcover microhabitats and soil moisture levels, but the effects of this common practice on amphibian populations are not well studied. We compared the impacts of common intensive pine plantation operations to naturally regenerated pine forests on the desiccation, movement rates, behavior, and survival of > 900 juvenile southern toads (Anaxyrus terrestris). Pine plantations had significantly more accumulation of conifer needles and less exposed soil, herbaceous groundcover, broadleaf litter, and soil moisture than natural pine forests despite the greater canopy cover at plantations. Litter cover explained 85% of groundcover microhabitat variance among forest types and predicted minimum soil moisture levels. When toads were held in small outdoor enclosures that constrained microhabitat selection, 24-h desiccation rates and 72-h mortality were significantly greater in pine plantation than in naturally regenerated pine forest because of lower soil moisture, especially during low rainfall periods. In large outdoor pens where juvenile amphibians could select microhabitats, movement was strongly directed down slope and increased with precipitation. However, initial speeds were positively associated with pine density, likely because toads were trying to evacuate from the drier high-pine-density areas. High-intensity silviculture practices that eliminate herbaceous or vegetative groundcover, such as roller chopping and scalping, increase amphibian desiccation because planted conifers dry the upper soil layer. Our study highlights the importance of prioritizing lower intensity silviculture practices or lower pine densities to retain groundcover microhabitat that serves as amphibian refugia from dry conditions that are predicted to increase in frequency with climate change.

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Ecological Applications, v. 29, issue 3, art. e01870