The Dutch amphibian crisis: the case of the Fire salamander

Partly this blog draws its inspiration from the necessity I feel to report on the dwindling amphibian numbers throughout the world. Just one look at websites dedicated to amphibians, like the one of the Amphibian Specialist Group or the Amphibian Ark and it becomes clear that urgent action is needed with many species in peril. Luckily there already are some great initiatives focused on retrieving and studying the amphibians that need it most, like the search for the lost frogs. For a person living in the Netherlands the amphibian biodiversity crisis seems to play out mostly far away in African, Asian and Latin-American countries, where there is a huge variety of amphibians, still relatively pristine nature and as well a fast growing human population that puts considerable pressure on these natural values. However, Dutch people also have to fear that one of their most enigmatic amphibians, the Fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), is threatened with extinction in our country.  This would mean losing something far more valuable than a small percentage on our spending budget, which is the talk of the town nowadays in my country.

The Fire salamander. Copyright: Wikipedia

I remember being on a school trip in the South of the Netherlands, in the province of Limburg, when a biology teacher of mine excitedly reported he had seen a Fire salamander in the woods. Unfortunately it was already dead and this seems to be the faith of many individuals of this species in the Netherlands nowadays, according to RAVON , an organization specialized in herpetological research in the Netherlands. My teacher’s excitement (although quite normal for him) was very much justified because the Fire salamander is a very colourful creature that you wouldn’t expect in this temperate region. I mean if you look at birds species occurring in the Netherlands, without wanting to upset them too much, they are much less beautifully colored than let’s say birds of paradise from New Guinea (although that’s no fair competition) and sometimes just fairly dull colored. The same more or less applies to amphibians, considering the brilliantly bright coloration in the poison dart frogs and the mantellids from the tropics. However the Fire salamander seems to be a tropical species that has wandered into our European continent as a stranger, a little bit out of place, but not less welcome. Although there exist many color variations in the species, the ‘archetype’ of a Fire salamander would be a black salamander with bright yellow spots and stripes.  Like the poison dart frogs it advertizes bright coloration because it is a poisonous animal, with most of the yellow spots and stripes coinciding with its poison glands. For more detailed information on its characteristics, ecology and reproduction, I gladly refer you to the Encyclopedia of Life.

But now the news from the Netherlands: at the end of August of this year, several Dutch organizations released a press statement (watch out, it is in Dutch) announcing a project that is dedicated exclusively to the survival of the Fire salamander in the Netherlands (again in Dutch!).  Even though the Fire salamander has never been common in the Netherlands , there used to be a stable population in the south of Holland, in Limburg, with in the nineties of the last century  a population of several thousand individuals.  It is known that in that time it was easy to spot dozens of individuals on a rainy night. However now there is only one place left, the ‘Bunderbos’, a woodland with springs on the slopes of a stream valley, where live individuals have been found in 2012. Unfortunately they found only 19 individuals in this year’s fall and a couple of dozen larvae.  At the same time the number of dead individuals has increased alarmingly, and until now the cause of death of these individuals remains a mystery.

Multiple causes are being researched at the moment with special focus on any disease that might have caused the high mortality in recent time. As in many parts of the world, the prime suspect is the chytridiomycose, but research also extends to the ranavirus. To that end, dead animals have been brought to the University of Gent for a full autopsy. Other agents of declines that are being considered, are decline in habitat quality, specifically the presence of heavy metals and pesticides in soil and water, and removal of individuals for the pet trade. In the meanwhile, with this uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of a large part of the population, the government and RAVON have decided to capture and quarantine live individuals and establish a breeding program.  Only when they have figured out what cause led to the decline of the populations, they will release these animals into the wild again. For the set up of the breeding program the responsible organizations (with as main responsible organization RAVON) have contacted experts of the Amphibian Ark project and the IUCN. After genetic screening, to ensure no genetic inbreeding will occur, two groups of 15 salamanders will be housed in separate zoos in the Netherlands. Such a breeding program is very much needed as the most recent visits to the sites where the Fire salamander is expected, didn’t result into the find of new live individuals of the species.

RAVON has dedicated itself to putting as much effort as possible into the survival of this marvelous creature. Therefore they have set up a campaign called SOS Fire Salamander; included in this campaign are the before-mentioned breeding program and the search for the unknown agent of decline. But as well they are trying to raise money for the preservation of this species and therefore are trying to reach the Dutch community by press releases, contacting the government and using social media. Until now they have raised more than 5000 euros for the species, but every extra euro is very much needed. Because I sympathize deeply with this cause, I urge you to go to the website and donate money, even a small amount, as well!

If you want to keep updated on the project and learn more about the Fire salamander, I strongly recommend visiting the website of the Wandering Herpetologist.

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