Models and Mechanisms: Understanding Multiple Stressor Effects on an Amphibian Population

EPA Grant Number: R829086
Title: Models and Mechanisms: Understanding Multiple Stressor Effects on an Amphibian Population
Investigators: Palmer, Brent D. , Elskus, Adria , Sih, Andy , Shepherd, Brian , Crowley, Philip
Institution: University of Kentucky
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: August 1, 2001 through July 31, 2004 (Extended to November 25, 2005)
Project Amount: $522,832
RFA: Wildlife Risk Assessment (2001) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Environmental Justice , Biology/Life Sciences , Ecological Indicators/Assessment/Restoration , Aquatic Ecosystems


This proposal aims to further our understanding of the effects of multiple environmental stressors, both natural and anthropogenic, on a wildlife population of the salamander, Ambystoma barbouri. Our central hypothesis is that multiple stressors can interact to generate complex detrimental effects on populations, and these effects can be much more severe than those produced by any single stressor. Our objectives are to: 1) build, implement and evaluate a spatially-explicit, individual-based population model; 2) conduct experiments to measure the effects of multiple stressors on parameters that enter into the model (e.g., survival, fecundity, growth, extinction rates); and 3) measure endocrine and physiological variables to investigate potential mechanisms underlying effects of multiple stressors on the parameters that enter into the model. A. barbouri was selected due to increasing concern over the apparent global decline of amphibians and because amphibian life history characteristics make them particularly vulnerable to multiple stressors. To produce a realistic, situation-specific model, the combinatorial effects of multiple stressors likely to be encountered by this population will be used to model population demography (growth, survival, fecundity, extinction rates). These stressors include habitat ephemerality (desiccation), predator-prey interactions (chemoreception, locomotion, drift) and anthropogenic pollutants (atrazine). In addition, physiological endpoints (hormone balance, enzyme induction) will be studied to elucidate mechanisms underlying amphibian response to multiple stressors. Parameters for the model will be derived from these and other empirical data; sensitivity analysis will identify the influence of each parameter, and the model will be validated against an existing data set.


Salamander eggs will be collected from a wildlife population, divided into multiple treatment groups and exposed to combinations of atrazine (a widely used herbicide), density stress, desiccation and predation throughout embryonic and larval development. Larvae will be assessed for growth, developmental rate, time to and size at metamorphosis, locomotor ability, activity levels, use of refugia, predator avoidance and drift rates. Following metamorphosis, juveniles will be evaluated for growth, time to maturity and survival. Adult reproductive capacity will be examined by studying male and female gonadal histopathology. To understand mechanisms of action of multiple stressors, physiologically relevant parameters (estradiol-17 , testosterone, corticosterone, prolactin, thyroid hormones, vitellogenin and steroid metabolizing enzymes) will be quantified at four different stages (early and late metamorphs, juveniles and adults).

Expected Results:

The proposed research will help elucidate the effects of real-world risks posed by multiple stressors on a model species representative of a group of particular concern (amphibians). This research will result in a spatially-explicit, individual-based model of population demography (growth, survival, fecundity and extinction rates) that discerns the effects of stressors, singly and in combination, and facilitates assessment of population sustainability. The resulting life history data will relate stressor-response relationships to demography. In addition, this research will enhance our mechanistic understanding of stress responses, significantly improving the predictive capability of the model. This model should prove useful to wildlife managers and risk assessors due to its incorporation of multiple stressors and its simple conceptual basis, which makes it readily modifiable for use with other species and other stressors. This work will generate new knowledge on the sensitivity of this little studied group (amphibians) to multiple environmental stressors and should increase our understanding of current amphibian declines worldwide.

Publications and Presentations:

Publications have been submitted on this project: View all 25 publications for this project

Journal Articles:

Journal Articles have been submitted on this project: View all 5 journal articles for this project

Supplemental Keywords:

endocrine disruption, behavior, water, watersheds, sensitive populations, dose-response, ecological effects, toxics, aquatic, conservation, ecology, climate change, Kentucky,, RFA, Health, Scientific Discipline, Air, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, Aquatic Ecosystems & Estuarine Research, exploratory research environmental biology, wildlife, Ecosystem/Assessment/Indicators, climate change, Air Pollution Effects, Aquatic Ecosystem, Susceptibility/Sensitive Population/Genetic Susceptibility, Monitoring/Modeling, Ecological Effects - Environmental Exposure & Risk, Environmental Monitoring, genetic susceptability, Ecological Risk Assessment, Atmosphere, predicting risk, sensitive populations, anthropogenic stress, ecological exposure, demographic data, stressors, watersheds, endocrine disruption , amphibians, dose-response, endocrine disrupting chemical, exposure, amphibian, endocrine disruptors, modeling, multiple stressors, Wildlife Risk Assessment, animal models, salamander eggs, ecosystem stress, watershed assessment, ecological response, toxics, environmental hazard exposures, modeling ecosystems, amphibian population

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2002 Progress Report
  • 2003 Progress Report
  • 2004
  • 2005
  • Final Report