The role of climate in the dynamics of a hybrid zone in Appalachian salamanders


Susan C. Walls, tel. +352 264 3507, e-mail:


I examined the potential influence of climate change on the dynamics of a previously studied hybrid zone between a pair of terrestrial salamanders at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, U.S. Forest Service, in the Nantahala Mountains of North Carolina, USA. A 16-year study led by Nelson G. Hairston, Sr. revealed that Plethodon teyahalee and Plethodon shermani hybridized at intermediate elevations, forming a cline between ‘pure’ parental P. teyahalee at lower elevations and ‘pure’ parental P. shermani at higher elevations. From 1974 to 1990 the proportion of salamanders at the higher elevation scored as ‘pure’P. shermani declined significantly, indicating that the hybrid zone was spreading upward. To date there have been no rigorous tests of hypotheses for the movement of this hybrid zone. Using temperature and precipitation data from Coweeta, I re-analyzed Hairston's data to examine whether the observed elevational shift was correlated with variation in either air temperature or precipitation from the same time period. For temperature, my analysis tracked the results of the original study: the proportion of ‘pure’P. shermani at the higher elevation declined significantly with increasing mean annual temperature, whereas the proportion of ‘pure’P. teyahalee at lower elevations did not. There was no discernable relationship between proportions of ‘pure’ individuals of either species with variation in precipitation. From 1974 to 1990, low-elevation air temperatures at the Coweeta Laboratory ranged from annual means of 11.8 to 14.2 °C, compared with a 55-year average (1936–1990) of 12.6 °C. My re-analyses indicate that the upward spread of the hybrid zone is correlated with increasing air temperatures, but not precipitation, and provide an empirical test of a hypothesis for one factor that may have influenced this movement. My results aid in understanding the potential impact that climate change may have on the ecology and evolution of terrestrial salamanders in montane regions.