|Rough-skinned newt. Photo by Teal Waterstrat/USFWS
One of my editors hates the word iconic. He thinks, correctly, that it is way overused and so diminishes those species that really are iconic. Plus, he says, other words – well-known, celebrated – can be used just fine. This is a story about salamanders, so he needn’t be on the lookout for the I-word.
Even if they aren’t … well, you know … salamanders are quite important.
Salamanders, for instance, are excellent indicators of environmental health.
Their eggs and skin are permeable, like those of all amphibians, which let water and oxygen pass through. This makes them sensitive to water quality, so keeping an eye on salamanders can give us an indication that there is trouble before we might otherwise realize.
Salamanders also play big roles in nature’s food web.
In forests, salamanders help keep insects and other arthropods in balance. Many of their prey, such as ants and termites, are human pests. And by eating arthropods that themselves eat decomposing leaf litter, salamanders reduce the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, which is good for the global carbon cycle.
In vernal ponds (temporary pools of water that provide habitat for specific plants and animals), some salamander species are top predators and help control the abundance of aquatic invertebrates and other amphibians.
Of course, salamanders are also prey for many native animals, including various fish, birds and mammals.