With common names like hellbender, shovel-nosed, mudpuppy, even slimy, it’s no wonder salamanders get little respect. Yet these largely unnoticed amphibians help keep pesky mosquitos and ticks in check. They can be an important food source for small mammals, and their eggs and larvae provide food for fish, turtles and birds.
And some of their “smiles” can’t be beat.
Unfortunately these splashy and unusual-looking creatures are being beaten down by an overwhelming number of burdens.
Most recently, the intensely infectious Bsal fungus is wreaking havoc on their immune system. A close cousin of the chytrid disease wiping out frogs, the skin-eating fungus is spreading to the western world via the pet trade from Asia, where salamanders have evolved immunity to the virus over tens of millions of years. In the United States, where a third of the world’s salamander species live, no known immunity exists. If the virus ends up in the wild, it could rapidly wipe out entire salamander species in North America. Already it has almost caused the extinction of the fire salamander in the Netherlands. Today the population is 4% of what it was just six years ago. The fungus has since been found in Belgium.
Salamanders in already at-risk populations are also still caught in the wild for the pet trade—and some die before they make it to stores. One massive pet trade bust in Arlington, Texas in 2009 revealed 26,000 animals, including amphibians, ferrets, turtles, tortoises, snakes and more in deplorable conditions with severe crowding. Officials found starving and sick animals crammed in soda bottles, pillow cases and cattle troughs. U.S. Global Exotics was put out of business but had been a major supplier of hundreds of thousands of animals to major-chain pet stores in the United States and abroad.
In the Appalachians—some of the best salamander habitat in the world—some salamanders may be trying to adapt to a warming climate by shrinking in size. Amphibians need cool, moist places. But as the world warms, rising temperatures cause the metabolism to speed up even during normal activities, with less energy available for growth. The result: Adult salamander specimens from six species measured in 2011 and 2012 are an average 8 percent smaller than those measured at the same sites between 1957 and 1980, according to researchers from Clemson University. No one yet knows if this will help amphibians or just set them up for other problems down the road. But for the snakes, birds and small mammals that rely on salamanders, their smaller size means they already have to expend more time finding enough food.
Shrinking habitat also isn’t helping. When wetlands are drained, forests logged and waterfronts developed, salamanders lose their homes. Deforestation is particularly problematic because salamanders lose the decaying logs and leafy cover where they rest, and too much sunlight on the forest floor can dry up breeding pools and even the salamanders themselves.
Added to the mix are contaminants that wash off into wetlands during rainstorms. Amphibians have extremely permeable skin, making pesticides, oils and other toxic substances all the more toxic, even deadly. And increasingly, more and more roads are isolating breeding populations from one another and are responsible for mortality rates as high as 50% to 100% in salamander populations when they try to get to the other side.
Despite all these problems, salamanders are resilient. They are even capable of regenerating lost limbs and other damaged body parts, a trait unique among vertebrates. What they can’t do to help themselves, we can try to do for them. It’s not hard.
- For starters, don’t touch—unless you are moving them out of harm’s way. Salamanders have absorbent skin and the oils, salts and lotions on our hands can do serious damage. If you are helping them cross a road, move them in the direction they are headed and try to wet your hands first. To not hit them yourself, try to avoid roads that cut through forests and wetlands on wet spring nights.
- Never use rat poison, chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides around your home. These substances wash off into nearby forests and wetlands and can kill salamanders or cause deformities.
- When enjoying the great outdoors avoid DEET, which is extremely harmful to amphibians. Instead, wear bug-repellent net jackets and pants over your clothes. Remember to stay on designated paths to prevent stepping on salamanders as they shelter in the underbrush.
- In winter, use sand instead of road salt on slippery pavement. Salt washes off into wetlands during snow melts. Salts can dry up and kill salamanders, and can destroy up to 56 percent of salamander eggs when the water drains to roadside ponds, according to a study by Yale School of Forestry.
- Do not catch or buy salamanders from the wild to keep as pets or use as fishing bait.
- Reach out to U.S. officials and encourage them to take action to keep the deadly Bsal fungus out of the U.S. and away from our vulnerable native salamanders.
And most important of all, don’t forget to spread the word! Share this information with your friends, family, and on social media.