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(Belated) June Species of the Month: Carpathian Newt

Sorry, still busy and behind, and this will be a brief species of the month…

For June of 2015: The Carpathian Newt (Lissotriton montandoni)!

carpathain

Vigo the Newtpathian

These little Carpathian newts are conquerors… That’s not really the right word, but I like the image. They are survivors. They appear to have adapted well to humans encroaching on their habitat (compared to most amphibians). Sometimes population densities can get up to 20 newts per meter square, which is pretty great.

Like most newts (for the difference between Newts vs. Salamanders see this post), the Carpathian newt has 3 life stages: larvae, eft, and adult. As the namesake suggests, these little guys range throughout the Carpathian mountains and are frequently found in the Ukraine and Romania.

Range of Carpathian newt.

Range of Carpathian newt.

The Carpathian newt seems to be more active during the daytime hours than any other species of newt (most newt species are moderately nocturnal).

Their breeding season varies based on how high they live in the mountains (groups living higher up the mountains will breed mid through late summer, vs. animals living in the foothills which will breed in late spring through mid summer). Efts usually start to climb out of the water in mid/late summer.

Adult newt in breeding colors.

Adult newt in breeding colors.

This is a brumating (brumation= mild form of hibernation) species that will brumate late fall through late spring.

Handsome newt.

Handsome newt.

All glory to the Carpathian newt!

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(Belated) May Species of the Month: Laos Newt!

The May species of the month: the Laos Knobby/Warty Newt (Laotriton laoensis). Getting up to speed…

This species of the month may end up more of a rant than anything… You see, the Laos Newt was discovered just over 10 years ago (not surprisingly, in Laos). It very rapidly became endangered in the wild, partially due to a small distribution (just over 4000 square kilometers) and habitat fragmentation, but almost exclusively due to capture and exportation for the pet trade.

People also eat them. However, Loatians have begun to discourage this practice since the newt has become endangered.

People also eat them. However, Loatians have begun to discourage this practice since the newt has become endangered.

The Laos Newt is a very beautiful and charismatic creature, from a beautiful country. They live in headwater streams in Northeast Laos and breed in the leaf litter of the pools at the headwaters. They breed in the cool fall season. They are a stunning and mysterious, new creature that any collector would want to have. This doesn’t make it OK to purchase a wild Laos Newt.

There is a difference between a “Laos Warty Newt” and a “Warty Newt.” Warty newts refer to a genre of newt from all over Asia, and while the ethics of trading wild caught Warty Newts are questionable, these are frequently captive bred. All Laos Newts I have ever seen on the market have been wild caught, and very few collectors have successfully bred them in captivity (I have begun to finally see some pictures of captive bred animals pop up). Despite the endangered status of the animal, and that there are Laotian people who have actual started acting as sentries to protect these animals from being poached, these animals still turn up for sale. I just saw a wild one for sale yesterday.

Handsome little devils.

Handsome little devils.

All we can really do for this species now is try to reclaim it, and try to reintroduce it. What is horribly depressing in this case is that there are so many wild animals still living in captivity, and we are having to reintroduce captive bred animals with a decreased genetic pool in their place.

Someone studying the newts.

Someone studying the newts.

I am not against the pet trade (I personally try to stay away from purchasing or collecting wild caught animals that are not for conservation purposes, but I can understand rare cases where this is appropriate), but this type of thing happens all the time when a new species is discovered in a nation that does not have the governmental infrastructure to prevent mass exportation. Please be aware of this sort of thing, and please do not support importation of rare wild animals. If you do purchase a non-rare wild caught animal, be certain it was obtained under ethical circumstances (I would say legal, but much of the time this sort of thing is, sadly, legal).

Help keep species safe! Buy captive bred!

Help keep species safe! Buy captive bred!

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(Belated) April Species of the Month: Fire Salamander!

The fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is the April species of the month! We will catch up here…

The fire salamander is one of the most readily recognized species of salamander, due to its bright coloration and its popularity in the pet trade. Salamandra salamandra and its subspecies are naturally found on the majority of the mainland of Europe, in parts of North Africa and along the Mediterranean coast.

Range map for Fire Salamanders

Range map for Fire Salamanders

The fire salamander is the animal primarily responsible for the historical mythological connection of salamanders to fire (hence the common name). These animals would be snug (or rather, cool) in their damp log homes, and when they were tossed on the fire they would come scurrying out. The impression was that they were generated from, or drawn to (for the slightly smarter people), the fire.

Fire salamanders come in a range of bright colors, from yellow to red. Like most brightly colored amphibians, the color indicates that fire salamanders are toxic!

The toxins which these animals carry are highly specific to each population, modifying in intensity and in effects based on predator load; however, they all contain the toxin salamandarin which will have the effect of neurotoxicity. Licking fire salamanders can lead to hypertension, hyperventilation, and convulsions. Too much toxin can lead ultimately to cardiac arrest and death. Obviously- don’t lick fire salamanders. Not as obviously- wash hands after handling, and don’t touch your lips/face/eyes/food after handling.

This card is false- they don't squirt poison into your eyes or mouth.

This card is false- they don’t squirt poison into your eyes or mouth.

They do have a larval stage (they aren’t direct developers like some other species, including the Mississippi Slimy Salamander).

Adorable baby!

Adorable baby!

The fire salamander was the first species in which the fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans was discovered. This fungus, a relative to Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis which has been recognized as a major player in the cause of amphibian declines and extinctions over the last 20+ years, is highly aggressive in salamanders and acts as a flesh eating disease. So far, this newly recognized fungus has not been seen to infect frogs. It is suspected that it was transferred to the salamanders from Asian salamanders (which appear able to carry the fungus) via importation and the pet trade. This fungus has not yet been detected in the USA but it has been detected on the mainland in Europe and in the UK. It is devastating in most salamander species and in the USA the government may potentially halt trade, at least temporarily, on all salamanders in order to help prevent spread.

Protect me! Support salamander conservation!!

Protect me! Support salamander conservation!!

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Species of the Month: Mississippi Slimy Salamander

I was out at the Noxubee Wildlife refuge with my dogs, and there were slimy salamanders (the species, not the characteristic) under almost every other log I looked under. I feel that they were nominating themselves for Species of the Month. Let’s talk slimy salamanders! (The gallery below is the salamanders I found today)

You can see then rubbing themselves all over my hand in the picture above. They got their name from this sticky goo/mucus they secrete whey they are handled (or something tried to eat them). It’s kinda tacky like drying glue and mildly irritating. They get real into rubbing the stuff on you.

Slimy salamanders are plethodontid salamanders, which is a HUGE group of salamanders that can vary quite a bit in looks, behavior, and breeding methods. What plethodontids all share is that they are lungless. They rely on their skin to breathe.

Getting some air? Or just bad at hiding?

Getting some air? Or just bad at hiding?

As far as “slimy salamander” species specifically, there are 13 species of slimy salamanders. They are more or less separated by region and, honestly, aside from minor genetic differences, I don’t know what classifies them as different species. Overall they look very similar (two or three of the species have notably fewer spots or a different shade of skin) and they can all interbreed. The little fellas and ladies I was finding were Plethodon mississipi, the Mississippi slimy salamander.

Map of slimy salamander species distribution. Any is your area?

Map of slimy salamander species distribution. Any in your area?

Everyone always wants to know how to tell a male from a female. With most plethodontids, it can be difficult outside the breeding season. The male cloaca will have papilla and be swollen when breeding, but outside that time they will look much like a female. The male will also get swelling under his chin during breeding season- this is his mental gland, which he uses to spread pheromones to the female.

Look at that sexy mental gland.

Look at that sexy mental gland.

 

My favorite way to tell males from females in most plethodontids, which many biologists will argue with me because it hasn’t been proven in all species (but statistically I find it works 100% of the time, I have yet to have it fail me, you just need good eyes): look for the ‘stache. Males have a “mustache” (or fangs), which is actually enlarged premaxillary teeth (plethodontid means “lots of teeth”) that they use to ensure delivery of pheromone to the female.

Mississippi slimy salamanders go a courtin’ in the late summer, July and August. They have teeny tiny clutches of 4-20 eggs that they lay under logs where the little female ferociously guards them… for about 2 to 3 months until they hatch. Good moms!

Momma guarding her eggs.

Momma guarding her eggs.

Eggs hatch into tiny terrestrial salamanders (no larval stage for slimy salamanders) that look like itty bitty adults. Super cute. They take about 3 years to reach maturity… and the cycle continues!

Newborn slimy. He'll get his color in a couple weeks.

Newborn slimy. He’ll get his color in a couple weeks.

So go out, flip some logs and find some cute little slimy salamanders today!

 

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French Axolotls

It is no real secret that I am an axolotl fan- my only two tattoos are of axolotls (we’ll have a tattoo posting once I can get a satisfactory photo of Hector, the axie on my foot). I am doing a guest lecture in a development class tomorrow, and since I was given no topic and the students are observing axolotl embryo growth, I figured I would give them the history of axolotls in science. Which brings me to this artifact.

This is a video from 1913, made by the French collectors of axolotls. This is amazingly old for a scientific video… Or at least a surviving scientific video. While it is not exactly Science Art, this video is a little piece of axolotl history!

For those who didn't have the patience to watch the film, enjoy this brochure cover.

For those who didn’t have the patience to watch the film, enjoy this brochure cover.

For those who aren’t axolotl geeks like myself: in the mid 1800s, a French journalist brought a bunch (a bunch = 34) of axolotl specimen back from a trip to Mexico. In 1863, 6 of these animals were given to August Duméril who was an enthusiastic biologist. He bred the heck out of them and studied them intensely, discovering their various color morphs and interesting properties such as neoteny and regeneration. Thus began the long and fruitful career of the axolotl in science. These little dudes are incredibly important to medical research (especially immune, neurobiological, and reproductive research). They are also the cutest animal EVER and they are my conservation icon. I love them.

So… French axolotls.

le axolotl

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Salamanders in the snow!

Everyone around me is in a tizzy about the snow… I do live in a part of the country that hardly every sees the white fluffy stuff, but still… It’s all I’ve heard about today. So I thought I would post about salamanders in the snow!

In the winter, it is not uncommon to see salamanders in the snow. Because they are amphibians, people seem to think salamanders like warm or tropical weather, but there are VERY few species of salamanders that live in tropical areas. Salamanders like temperate to cool climates and tend to thrive in lower temperatures. Not all species of salamanders hibernate/brumate (brumation is a kind of less intense form of hibernation where the animal slows down but doesn’t enter deep sleep; some salamanders, like mudpuppies, actually brumate in the summer). Many species breed and are actually most active during the winter months. Ambystoma species are commonly seen migrating through snow, as some of these species breed in late fall to early winter, some breed in deep winter, and some breed in later winter to early spring. If you see a salamander in the snow (or in your garage in the winter) it is not in need of rescue. It is either trying to find a mate or just checking out the weather.

Enjoy some pictures of happy salamanders in the snow!

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February Species of the Month: Blue Spotted Salamander!!!

And now, the February species of the month: the blue spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale)! This species has to be one of my all time favorites. All salamanders are adorable, and the blue spots are no exception, being super tiny and super smiley. However, they have very complicated reproductive strategies which makes them pretty awesome in my book.

I spotted a blue spot!

I spotted a blue spot!

Firstly, many of the populations of blue spotted salamanders are becoming unisexual, all female populations. That’s right, ladies, these salamanders are moving away from the use of males. Occasionally they undergo parthenogenesis (“virgin births” in which they spontaneously double their genetic information and lay eggs that develop without use of sperm), but more often they utilize a very fun technique called kleptogenesis. KLEPTO-genesis. These ladies steal the sperm of other species in order to activate their eggs (no fertilization occurs, only the enzymes of the sperm are utilized) and form little clones of themselves.

Stop, thief! She robbed the sperm bank!!

Stop, thief! She robbed the sperm bank!!

Blue spotted salamanders live in the Great Lakes states and up into Canada.

The blue spotted salamander range.

The blue spotted salamander range.

They breed in the spring (March-April) and are known to steal the sperm of at least 5 other species of salamanders: Jefferson’s salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), the smallmouth salamander (Ambystoma texanum), the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum/mavortium), and the streamside salamander (Ambystoma barbouri).

A range of salamanders blue spots will steal sperm from.

A range of salamanders blue spots will steal sperm from.

So what about the poor blue spotted salamander males? They do still exist is some isolated populations, although they may yet disappear. Well, as it turns out, they have an interesting behavior of their own. The males like to “cross dress” in order to ensure that a female will use their sperm. Sound confusing? Let me explain.

I'm a pretty girl.

I’m a pretty girl.

Blue spotted salamanders court each other with a dance. The male dances for a female and, if she like his dance, she will follow him. As she follows him, he deposits his sperm in what is called a spermatophore (a densely packed “ball” of sperm) and she picks it up and undergoes internal fertilization. SEXY stuff.

Blotched ensatinas courting (no pictures of blue spots, but it is the same idea)

Blotched ensatinas courting (no pictures of blue spots, but it is the same idea)

A cross dressing male will behave like a female and, when a male comes to court him, he will follow. After the dancing male deposits his sperm, the cross dresser will then deposit HIS sperm ON TOP of the dancer’s sperm. This way his sperm is placed in the environment and is more likely for a female to pick it up. Why doesn’t he just court the female? Well, he passes for a female, doesn’t he? Apparently this strategy works, and it works really well. Genetics show many females are fertilized by males that did not court them.

Baby blue spot!!

Baby blue spot!!

So the real story of the blue spotted salamander is… it sucks to be a male. Sorry, boys. Blue is now the ladies’ color.