Measuring salamander breaths

Eric peers at a redbacked salamander while Andrew records how much oxygen it breathes.

Imagine that the temperature inside your body, instead of being a toasty 98.6°F, was simply determined by the temperature of the air outside. All of the processes taking place in your body would be determined by the weather – your breathing, your heart rate, your appetite and your ability to fight off a cold. If you were a child, the weather would determine how fast you grow up. If you were an adult, the weather would dictate your ability to conceive a child.

Imagine all this, and then imagine that the weather was changing.

How much air does a redbacked salamander breathe in an hour? The equivalent of less than one hundredth of one percent of a human breath. And it does it all through its skin!

How much air does a redbacked salamander breathe in an hour? The equivalent of less than 0.01% of a human breath.

At the National Zoo, we’re investigating how climate change in Appalachia might impact the >75 species of salamanders living here. Like frogs, fish and more than 99% of the other species on Earth, salamanders are ectotherms – meaning that they are unable to regulate their body temperature. So we’re looking at how changes in weather will affect how salamanders break food down into energy. This process of turning food into energy, otherwise known as metabolism, is pretty much the most important part of a salamander’s day. Metabolism gives the salamander the energy to handle all of its important business: growing, escaping predators, fighting disease, catching bugs, and producing little baby salamanders.

A redbacked salamander hangs out on a moist paper towel while Eric and Andrew prepare to put it in the oxygen chamber.

How do we measure salamander metabolism? By measuring the amount of oxygen it uses to breathe. After all, the only reason we animals breathe in the first place is so that all our little cells can use the oxygen to produce energy through metabolism. And btw, certain species, like hellbender and the readbacked salamander, breathe entirely through their skin!

So if you drop by the zoo’s Appalachian Salamander Lab in the next few weeks, be prepared – you may see scientists staring through a little plastic container with a salamander inside. We’ll be taking notes and adjusting temperatures, and most visitors will be scratching their heads at the dizzying array of knobs and tubing. But you’ll know what we’re up to.

This research is being conducted in partnership with U.S. Geological Survey biologists Dr. Evan Grant, Eric Dallalio, and Andrew Dietrich.

One comment

  1. D.D. says:

    Sounds like the salamander team is working hard to expand our knowledge of those amazing amphibians!It will be very exciting to learn about how tempature changes affect their metabolizm. This article was written in a way that made it so easy for me to understand the research. Keep up the good work!

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