September 11, 2017

Hellbenders, Shenandoah and red-backed salamanders, oh my!

By Jacob Froehlich, PhD

For anyone interested in endangered species conservation, the terms “flagship” or “keystone” species likely sound familiar. Amur tigers, white rhinoceroses, and giant pandas are flagship species because they hold such special places in the hearts of millions of people around the globe. While very important to their ecosystems, they are far from the only species needing protection. Quite frankly, it is (relatively) easy to sell conservation efforts for these animals to the tax-paying and funds-donating public. Who can argue with preserving the Amur tiger? Who is against keeping white rhinoceroses around for the next generation? Who doesn’t want his or her grandchildren to see a live giant panda in the future?

But what about the hellbender? And the Shenandoah salamander? Or the eastern red-backed salamander? These little amphibians are threatened with extinction just as the above animals are and yet I posit that few people (including me) readily think about their plights in the wild or their futures on this planet. Luckily for the American people, the taxpayers of this country, the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park (NZP) and Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) are on the case.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the NZP, the population of the hellbender, America’s largest salamander, is on the decline due to pollution, climate change, and human encroachment. The Shenandoah salamander and the eastern red-backed salamander are facing similar endangerment and extinction, primarily due to climate change. All three of these species have evolved to inhabit cool climates, where gas exchange is more easily achieved. The Shenandoah salamander is such a niche specialist that it lives on only three – yes, 1, 2, 3 – mountaintops in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Why do I even bring this up, apart from the importance of all species in conservation biology? I do so because I was quite impressed with the NZP’s efforts to showcase their work to the general public, the taxpayers who fund their important work. As I visited the many exhibits at the NZP, I was quite excited to see an exhibit devoted to these three salamander species and the work being done by scientists with the NZP and CBI. Just inches away from my eyes were baby salamanders, growing up and thriving under the auspices of the Smithsonian, having no idea how very important each of them is to the survival of their respective species. While I was just as impressed with this exhibit as I was with, say, the Asian elephant habitat, I know that I am in the minority. I venture a guess that, when faced with a choice between the scimitar-horned oryx or the hellbender, most zoo-goers will pick the former. However, I heap praise on the Smithsonian for making their efforts on the behalf of this triumvirate of amphibians freely accessible to the public. Even if five or ten more US citizens are aware of the plight of these tiny animals, the hellbender, Shenandoah salamander, and the eastern red-backed salamander will be better off. As the old adage goes, “every little bit helps,” and these salamanders need every millimeter of that little bit. Bravo to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and Conservation Biology Institute for making every little bit possible for these animals and so many, many more!

As a scientist, I am Salamanders1 Salamanders2proud of the work of the Smithsonian NZP and CBI. As a US taxpayer, I am even more pleased that my money is being spent well at the National Zoological Park – and all the Smithsonian Institutions.