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Amphibians as metrics of critical biological thresholds in forested headwater streams of the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A.


Hartwell H. Welsh Jr, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Experiment Station, Redwood Sciences Laboratory, 1700 Bayview Drive, Arcata, CA 95521, U.S.A.


1. Amphibians are recognized both for their sensitivity to environmental perturbations and for their usefulness as cost-effective biometrics of ecosystem integrity (=system health).

2. Twenty-three years of research in headwater streams in the Klamath-Siskiyou and North Coast Bioregions of the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A., showed distinct patterns in the distribution of amphibians to variations in water temperature, % fine sediments and the amount of large woody debris (LWD).

3. Here, we review seven studies that demonstrate connections between species presence and abundance and these three in-stream variables. These data were then used to calculate realized niches for three species, the southern torrent salamander, the larval coastal tailed frog and the larval coastal giant salamander, relative to two of these environmental stressors (water temperature and % fine sediments). Moreover, multivariate generalized additive models were used to predict the presence of these three amphibians when these three stressors act in concert.

4. Stream-dwelling amphibians are shown to be extremely sensitive to changes in water temperature, amounts of fine sediment and LWD, and specific thresholds and ranges for a spectrum of animal responses can be used to manage for headwater tributary ecosystem integrity.

5. Consequently, amphibians can provide a direct metric of stream ecosystem integrity acting as surrogates for the ability of a stream network to support other stream-associated biota, such as salmonids, and their related ecological services.