In the year of the salamander people might wonder why we should care about plummeting salamander numbers, as this question is posed a lot when it comes to species conservation. Well for starters, just like you and me every creature has an intrinsic value, is valuable merely because it exists. It does not have to earn its right to exist, because who determines the criteria for earning this right and more importantly who could ever be the judge of that? The Buddha urged his followers to love every living being, be it human or animal (or otherwise). And this means to me that if we are responsible for declining numbers of animals we should try to help them and do our utmost best to keep them among us. But I understand that in our modern worldview valuing a creature just for its existence will not generate much applause (notice for instance how the unemployed struggle to find any meaning in their life, as they feel useless). But there are some very strong arguments to put forth that show how every species is indispensable to human well-being; alas we hardly take notice of these arguments. We fail to fully appreciate the importance of every part of an ecosystem and we fail to appreciate the vital role these creatures and ecosystems as a whole play in our everyday life. That’s why I want to discuss now a recently published research article that has demonstrated how woodland salamanders in temperate forests enhance carbon storage in the soil. A vital service to humankind as we have failed, up till now, to curb our greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently.
Without being aware of it, my previous post about the axolotl in Mexico marked the first of several consecutive posts dealing with salamanders. However, after putting the blogpost online I remembered that this year has been designated ‘year of the salamander’ by several conservation groups and that therefore it would be valuable to write some other blogposts to celebrate this. If I look back at my two years of blogging now, I have given the group of the salamanders relatively little attention (with the exception of my reports on the Fire salamander in the Netherlands), while I cannot really think of a good reason why, except a personal preference towards anurans (toad and frogs). That is certainly not very objective of me! In my defense, the media and also scientists seem to have exhibit this same preference for anurans, probably due to their bright colors and photogenic appearance and the higher biodiversity found among this group. Still, salamanders as a group show great variety and their behavior, ecology and appearance can be just as interesting as that of anurans. I guess my personal preference for small, mainly tropical and hopping creatures should not stand in the way of giving the attention to all amphibians, especially considering that salamanders are not at all faring better than their amphibian cousins. So this blogpost I will devote exclusively to make you understand why we need a year of the salamander.
Ever since I have spent six months living in Mexico I have felt very sympathetic towards the country and especially the Mexican people, who are in general a very happy, generous and upbeat people. For a Dutch guy like me, raised in a Calvinistic tradition, it has been enlightening to see such a sunnier side of life in a less prosperous country. Unfortunately, due to the coke abuse in the Western world, Mexicans have been suffering from a real drug war for many years now already, spreading terror but also taking the lives of many innocent people. I wish for them that better times are ahead. Maybe of less concern to the average Mexican, but equally a worrying development, are the declining numbers of the enigmatic Mexican axolotl. This peculiar salamander, that never completes metamorphosis into the adult stage like other amphibians do, is only found in the vicinity of Mexico-City in a watershed that is being drained and polluted by the millions of inhabitants of the country’s capital. An intensive survey last year first failed to find any living axolotls, but luckily the most recent news revealed the discovery of at least some individuals.
The Peruvian Parque Nacional del Manu, a protected area in the southeastern Amazon region of the country, has been proven to be home to the largest amphibian (and reptilian) diversity on earth. This is the outcome of a survey from scientists of several American universities who set out to record those specific taxons in this protected area. Previously, the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador (topic of study in an earlier blogpost) held this record with a total of 150 amphibian species, but ‘Manu’ exceeds this number with a staggering total of 155 amphibian species (and 132 reptilian species). Both protected areas lie within the region of the Tropical Andes which is known as thé biodiversity hotspot for amphibians. The Tropical Andes extends from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes and the Andean grasslands, through the montane cloud forests into the lowland rainforests of the Amazon. While Yasuni National Park only protects Amazon lowland rainforest, in Parque Nacional del Manu all these ecosystems are found within its boundaries and the high diversity in landscapes and habitats is reflected in the spectacular biodiversity. The diversity of birds and butterflies in the park is unrivaled in the world as well.
Scientists have found that oil roads running through remote tracts of primary forest in the Ecuadorian Amazon have a much greater effect on frogs living in the canopy than previously assumed. In fact the Ecuadorian government and oil companies have always argued that these oil roads have little to no effect on the environment, because they are well managed and no settlers are allowed to open up tracts of forest next to these roads, as is the case along other oil roads in the country. However, this first investigation of effects on life in the canopy shows that the number of frogs is severely affected by these oil roads even though the surrounding forest seems to be in good health and these frogs are living at altitudes up to 50 meters above the forest floor. This means that biodiversity next to these ‘low-intensity’ oil roads might be more under threat than always thought.
On the ‘roof of Indochina’, the peninsula comprised of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, a new frog species has been discovered at the end of last year by a team of Australian and Vietnamese researchers. The new species, Botsford’s leaf frog (Leptolalax botsfordi) is the 37th species in the genus of Leptolalax, small-bodied frogs with calls that resemble insect sounds, all living in the southern or western part of Asia. It is named after the British scientist Christopher Botsford, in honor of his work on conservation of amphibian biodiversity and scientific capacity building in the region . For those who believe that new species discoveries are becoming more and more rare now, since scientists have already been working for a couple of hundred of years on describing our biodiversity, the genus of Leptolalax proves otherwise, as over 30% of the species in this genus have only been discovered in the last 5 years.
The same scientists that rediscovered the Kandyan dwarf toad (Adenomus kandianus), confirmed the find of a species, the webless shrub frog (Pseudophilautus hypomelas), that vanished from the earth in the same year as the Kandyan dwarf toad, 1876. In that year Sri Lanka, where the frog has its home, was still firmly in the hands of the British and would not gain independence for another 70 plus years. No wonder the scientists had a hard time recognizing the animal when they stumbled upon 40 individuals of this species.
The tepuis from South America, also known as ‘islands in the sky’, are renowned for their unique flora and fauna. Recently a Belgian scientist, Dr. Kok, added two new species to their impressive species catalogue, with the discovery of two frogs of the genus Pristimantis on top of two Venezuelan tepuis. The tepuis are remnants of the sea floor of approximately two billion years ago, that lifted upwards and then around 300 million years ago started to erode. By around 70 million years ago these tepuis were above the surrounding landscape, creating sheer vertical cliffs of sometimes more than 1000 meters in altitude. I remember seeing a documentary, of which i can’t recall the name, in which explorers tried to climb these tepuis and had to sleep in a sleeping bag attached to their ropes, while staying suspended at a couple hundred of meters above the landscape. For a person with vertigo like me, a very frightening sight. It also shows how isolated these tepuis can be and how hard to reach.
In the last blog of 2013, I want to pay homage to a special amphibian, the Panamanian golden frog ( Atelopus zeteki), a creature with a beautiful yellow and black color, as an advertisement of its poisonous nature. As it is considered to bring good luck whenever you spot one, maybe writing and you reading about it, will give some good luck to the coming year. It is also one of the few amphibians, I can’t say for sure it is the only one, that has its own national holiday; the 14th of August is known, since 2010, as National Golden Frog Day and is celebrated in honor of this very special toad. Atelopus zeteki holds a strong position in local Panamanian culture; according to myth this toad will turn into solid gold after it has deceased. In past times, local tribes would use its poison to kill other animals, just as in the case of the golden poison frog in Colombia.
An Australian science project aiming to bring the wonderful gastric-brooding frog back to life, called the Lazarus project, has been named one of the world’s best inventions of this year. The project was included in Time magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of the Year 2013, because it successfully recreated the DNA of the southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus). This species and its ‘sister species’ the northern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellus) are thought to be extinct for nearly three decades now. Which is a great loss to nature and to us: these species can be regarded as one of evolution’s masterpieces, because they were the only animals that used their stomach as a womb and therefore have their eggs develop in their stomach into froglets (see earlier blogpost).