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Friday, June 12, 2015

Serious About Salamanders

Jollyville Plateau Salamander

Humans often wonder why efforts are made to protect biodiversity and save endangered species.  Biodiversity is defined as the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem, and preserving it provides us with tremendous and vital benefits.  Among others, these benefits include air purification, medicines for better health, fresh water, pollination of crops, carbon sequestration (or storage), and preserving the fertility of the soil. 

Forests purify our air by filtering particulates and regulating the composition of the atmosphere. They act as massive carbon reservoirs, essential to the Earth’s global carbon cycle, and significantly contribute to regulating the global climate. Natural forest soils, with their active microbial and animal populations, have a higher content of total nutrients and biomass, supplying the right nutrients to plants in the right proportions.  Soils and wetlands also act as a filter for water, helping to reduce nitrogen loading, which is a significant form of pollution that occurs as a side effect of development in many parts of the world.  

Roughly 50% of the medicines currently available are derived from natural products.  Of these, at least 120 chemical compounds derived from 90 different plant species are critically important drugs in use around the world today.  Many flowering plants rely on a great variety of animals to pollinate them, including one third of the world’s food crops.  In the U.S., it has been estimated that honeybees alone pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops.    

Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected the Austin Blind Salamander (Eurycea waterlooensis), and the Jollyville Plateau Salamander (Eurycea tonkawae) in addition to a total of 4,451 acres of critical habitat.  These salamanders live no where else in the world, and saving them is also an important step for our region’s long-term water quality and health.  They cannot survive in waterways polluted with pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other toxins, so they are excellent indicators of the health of the environment.

Austin Blind Salamander

The Austin Blind Salamander has external feathery gills, a pronounced extension of the snout, no external eyes, and weakly developed tail fins.  It occurs in and around Barton Springs, which is fed by the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.  The conditions that threaten this species include degradation of its aquatic habitat from pesticides and fertilizers, as well as low flow conditions in the aquifer and the springs.  The Jollyville Plateau Salamander is physically similar to the Austin Blind Salamander, but has generally well-developed eyes, except for some cave-dwelling forms that exhibit eye reduction, head flattening, and loss of color.  Typically, their habitat is spring-fed, and they occur in depths of less than one foot of cool, well-oxygenated water.  While this salamander lives in the Jollyville Plateau and Brushy Creek areas, significant population declines have been observed, likely as a result of degrading water quality from rapid urban development. 

Perhaps one of the most fundamental benefits of saving endangered species is an aesthetic one, as the loss of biodiversity impoverishes our world of natural beauty, both for ourselves and for future generations.  It is yet another good reason for us to be serious about salamanders!