Life in a drawdown zone: natural history, reproductive phenology, and habitat use of amphibians and reptiles in a disturbed habitat.




Boyle, Kelly

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Canada is the second highest producer of hydroelectric energy in the world. Nearly 50 of the hydroelectric reservoirs in the country have a capacity larger than 1 billion m3. Despite the great number and extent of hydropower developments in Canada and around the world, relatively little is known about how dams and their operations influence terrestrial and semi-aquatic wildlife. Reservoirs at northern latitudes are characterized by large fluctuations in water level, which create modified shorelines called drawdown zones. To evaluate the impact of these disturbances on amphibians and reptiles, I conducted visual encounter surveys at two sites in the drawdown zone of Kinbasket Reservoir, near Valemount, B.C. From April to August of 2010 and 2011, I documented the habitat use, reproductive phenology, and body condition of two amphibian species (Anaxyrus boreas and Rana luteiventris) as well as the growth, movements, diet, and distribution of one species of garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). At two sites in the drawdown zone, A. boreas and R. luteiventris were present for the duration of the summer and utilized several ponds for reproduction. The presence and abundance of Rana luteiventris eggs were generally associated with ponds that had higher mean temperatures, higher mean pH, and the presence of fish. In 2010, there was sufficient time for amphibian breeding and metamorphosis to occur before the reservoir inundated the drawdown zone, but low precipitation levels in that year led to desiccation of many breeding ponds. In 2011, high rainfall and snowmelt led to early inundation of breeding ponds, and thousands of tadpoles were presumably swept into the reservoir. Gravid Thamnophis sirtalis were found at just one of two sites in the drawdown zone, but both sites were frequented by foraging individuals of this species. Anaxyrus boreas appears to be the primary prey of T. sirtalis in the drawdown zone. An improved understanding of how the amphibians and reptiles at Kinbasket Reservoir have persisted in this highly disturbed environment may be vital to their conservation — the activation of a new generating unit at Mica Dam in 2014 will alter the pattern and timing of reservoir inundation for the first time since it was constructed 40 years previously.



Thamnophis sirtalis, Ambystoma macrodactylum, Anaxyrus boreas, Rana luteiventris, drawdown zones, hydroelectric dams, reproductive phenology, habitat use