Dr. Jennifer Sevin
Dr. Jennifer Sevin

by Jennifer Sevin

According to dictionary.com, a relationship can be defined as a connection, association, or involvement. With that said, would you consider yourself to have a relationship with salamanders? Before you answer that, let me share some information with you.

At the time this was published, there are currently 760 species of salamanders globally (Caudata on Amphibia Web), with the Appalachian Mountains representing the global diversity hotspot. Salamanders are amphibians and need moisture to survive. During the day or when environmental conditions are not suitable, terrestrial species are known to take refuge in logs. It’s this behavior that likely led to them being called salamanders in the first place and where their relationship with people began.

A salamander unharmed in the fire. Circa 1350. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 126r
A salamander unharmed in the fire. Circa 1350. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 126r

The belief is that when people burned logs for firewood, salamanders within the logs emerged. The word salamander originated from a Greek term meaning fire lizard. The association to fire and related symbolism in mythology, folklore, religion, and pop culture has been referenced widely--from centuries-old writings, illustrations, and coats of armor to modern day video games, alcoholic beverages, and cooking appliances.

While organismal salamanders do not summon, prevent, or survive fire, they do provide many services to ecosystems and people. Most salamanders are small in size, but they are large in numbers. In some forests, their combined biomass exceeds that of other vertebrate organisms, including birds and most mammals (Burton and Likens 1975, Petranka and Murray 2001, Milanovich and Peterman 2016, Hernandez-Pacheco et al. 2019). As such, salamanders play an important ecological role. Serving as sources and sinks of nutrients, they cycle nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur among and between aquatic and terrestrial environments (Hocking and Babbitt 2014). Aquatic salamanders are known to control food webs from both the bottom-up and top-down (Sánchez-Hernández 2020). Their consumption of a large number of invertebrates, such as mosquito larvae, provide a natural pest control and limit the spread of vector-borne diseases. Likewise, salamanders transfer energy in the food chain by serving as prey to many species of vertebrates, and even some invertebrates. Perhaps not as commonplace as frog legs, people also consume salamanders for food. A historic food for the Aztecs, and current delicacy in Mexico, is the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), whereas the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus) is primarily consumed in Asia (Note: both of these species are critically endangered).

An Axolotl in water. Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Amandasofiarana
An Axolotl in water. Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Amandasofiarana

Furthermore, the Chinese Giant Salamander is also used in traditional medicines, while the Axolotl is considered a model organism in medical research. Organizations ranging from pharmaceutical companies to the U.S. Department of Defense have invested millions of dollars in studying traits of salamanders for application in public health. The most publicized research lies in their intriguing regenerative abilities. After all, who wouldn’t think re-growing a severed limb within weeks is amazing? Some salamanders have skin with antimicrobial properties preventing the spread of diseases, and others have secretions applicable to surgical glues.

If these aren’t enough reasons to find salamanders worthy of our praise, there is more. The biological characteristics of salamanders, such as permeable skin, response to environmental stimuli, long life spans, and site fidelity, make them susceptible to poor habitat quality. Data gathered from monitoring salamanders, therefore, provides context on environmental quality and the health of ecosystems (Davic and Welsh 2004, Jung et al. 2004). As important indicator species, we should be cognizant of their status, not only for their survival but ours as well.

However, not everyone recognizes the value of salamanders. Some people find them non- charismatic, ugly, gross, or dangerous. This may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but how people feel about particular organisms tends to translate into whether or not they support conservation, or in some cases, whether they actively harm animals (Castillo-Huitrón et al 2020). Even at a national level, amphibians have received far less attention in terms of endangered species listings and funding than other vertebrate species (Gratwicke et al. 2012). And considering that approximately 40% of amphibians are considered threatened (Stuart et al. 2004), it is important to garner positive support.

A European fire salamander (<em>Salamandra salamandra</em>), one of the species affected by the chytrid fungus <em>Bsal</em>. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by William Warby
A European fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), one of the species affected by the chytrid fungus Bsal. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by William Warby

We are responsible for the abundance of threats salamanders face, including habitat loss, pollution, disease, invasive species, climate change, and more. In some cases, even our fascination with them for pets has caused the overconsumption of wild salamanders. More than 45 species of salamanders and millions of individual organisms have been involved in international trade (Mohanty and Measey 2019). Trade can have indirect consequences, such as the spread of infectious diseases and the release of invasive species. In 2016, the U.S. took a proactive stance to protect native salamanders by instituting an interim rule listing 201 salamander species as injurious wildlife to prevent the introduction of the deadly Bsal chytrid fungus (USFWS). This action, along with many other conservation initiatives, demonstrate that our involvement with these amazing creatures can be positive.

So yes, I will be the first to admit that I have a connection, association, and involvement, and therefore relationship, with salamanders. I hope you recognize that you do as well and act to strengthen that relationship in a positive manner. Which brings me to my final point – while conducting ecological research and training students in these practices are important, we must also recognize the value of another relationship for conservation success – the one between the natural and social sciences.


What’s your relationship status?