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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Celebrating and Protecting Salamanders

 Rough-skinned newt
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.

 Ensatina Salamander
Ensatina salamander. Photo by Teal Waterstrat/USFWS

Many species in their ecosystems would miss salamanders if they were gone, and the way a food web works, we too might feel the pinch if salamanders disappear.

But why are we talking about salamanders disappearing? North America has a huge diversity of salamanders. Of the approximately 680 species of salamanders found worldwide, 190 are native to the United States. Surely they are safe.

Well, in addition to problems that affect all wildlife like changing habitat and climate, a dangerous threat has reared its ugly head – the fungus Bsal

The fungus (whose scientific name is Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, hence the less tongue-twisting common abbreviation) is common in various species of Asian newts (newts are a type of salamander), but it does not seem to harm them. And it poses no threat to people. But in the Netherlands and Belgium, where it has been introduced, Bsal has killed massive numbers of salamanders.

Bsal has not been found in the United States yet – incredibly lucky given that more than 2.5 million salamanders were imported into the United States between 2004 and 2014. And we aim to keep it that way.

We recently published an interim rule to designate 201 salamander species as injurious wildlife under the Lacey Act. These salamanders have been identified as carriers of Bsal.

An injurious species is just that: a species that could harm the health and welfare of humans or natural resources; in this case, native species. Most species listed as injurious were designated as such because of the direct negative impact they themselves cause, for example non-native snakes that prey on native wildlife. But the potential indirect impact that these non-native salamander species can have through the Bsal fungus is no less devastating.

The interim rule, which takes effect near the end of the month, bans the importation or transportation across state lines of the 201 species. The ban encompasses live or dead salamanders, including parts.

Unlike many of our rules, this one is going into effect almost immediately because of the danger of Bsal to salamanders. But we are also opening a comment period on the rule, and we will consider all the comments before issuing a final rule.

We’ll borrow one of my editor’s synonyms. Salamanders may never be truly iconic, but they ought to be celebrated. And with this rule we hope to keep them around for generations.

-- Matt Trott, External AffaIrs

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