Celebrating the Salamander

giant salamander
Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo
The Japanese Giant Salamander, which is considered a national treasure in Japan.

Today in Japan, they're making a big deal out of a big salamander. The Japanese giant salamander, which can be five feet long and more than 50 pounds, is an officially designated National Treasure, and every year on August 8, the village of Yubara Onsen holds a festival and parade in its honor. Salamanders don't get nearly as much love in the U.S., but they ought to, because we are home to about one third of the 550 known species in the world. "The U.S. has more [salamander] diversity than any other country in the world," says Kim Terrell, a salamander research scientist at the National Zoo.

The Hellbender

One particular salamander hotspot is Appalachia, where there are more than 75 species, about half of which live only there. The National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., is working to draw more attention to these neglected amphibians by raising funds for a new exhibit featuring Appalachian salamanders. They also support several research projects, including Terrell's work with the hellbender, a close relative of that giant Japanese treasure.

The largest salamander in the U.S., the hellbender can grow to over two feet long, but size isn't the only cool thing about them. "No other group of salamanders occupies the same niche — they live under big rocks at the bottom of streams," Terrell says. "They basically look like a lizard that got run over, the perfect shape for scooting under those rocks."

And those odd extra folds of skin along their sides are special too: When you breathe through your skin, more skin is better. Hellbenders do have lungs, but they're not for breathing — instead they use them for buoyancy control, helping them float or sink in the water. It's actually the capillaries in the skin folds that distribute oxygen to the body.

That's another unique feature of this group of salamanders, Terrell says, and it's fascinating from an evolutionary perspective. "You can really see how the transition from water to land could have occurred — we didn't just 'poof,' suddenly have functional lungs," she says. "Instead maybe you had these rudimentary sacs that held air, then later they were able to exchange air with rest of the body."

a hellbender salamander
Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian’s National Zoo
The Hellbender is the largest salamander in the U.S.

Hellbenders are threatened by loss and degradation of their habitat. They're particularly sensitive to water quality, which is one reason we should care about whether these animals are doing well. "If we protect the watershed where they live, we'll be protecting water for the rest of us," Terrell says. In the long run, climate change is also a concern for salamanders, and Terrell is researching how hellbenders respond to changing temperatures. She raises hellbenders in captivity where she can control temperatures, but she also does field research where hellbenders in the wild are captured, given a quick physical exam, and microchipped. Microchipping lets researchers know if they catch the same animal again, which helps estimate population size, among other things. "If one year you microchip 20 hellbenders in one stream, and, then the next year, 50 percent of the hellbenders you catch have a microchip, you can say there's probably about 40 hellbenders in this stream," she says.


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