3 new (and already endangered) species of salamanders discovered in Texas

January 15, 2019, 3:31 p.m.
A newly identified and unnamed salamander from Texas
Photo: Tom Devitt/University of Texas, Austin

Researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, and Austin's Watershed Protection Department have discovered three new species of salamanders that are struggling to survive in a unique environment.

The salamanders reside in the Edwards-Trinity aquifer system, a network deep beneath the surface of west-central Texas that covers tens of thousands of miles. According to researchers, this system is among the most species-rich groundwater systems in the world with dozens of endemic species living in some of its narrow and fragmented sections.

Some of these species have been there for about 100 million years. The salamanders, however, are relatively recent additions that evolved over time to adjust to life inside the dark and wet world, Tom Devitt, an environmental scientist from the Watershed Protection Department, told Earther. Today, they play an important role in maintaining the ecosystems of the aquifers, functioning as a top predator.

To determine the ranges of the system's various salamander species, Devitt and his colleagues conducted genetic analyses of more than a dozen groundwater salamanders preserved at the University of Texas and found along various spring sites near the aquifer. By comparing the salamanders' genes, the researchers determined where they were living.

They found that the aquifer influenced the salamanders' populations and evolution, indicating the flow of the aquifer was responsible for the flow of evolution. The scientists also discovered three as-of-yet unnamed new species, including a pale yellow salamander (pictured above) found only in a small area near the Pedernales River. Given the limited range, researchers think that the species is likely critically endangered.

The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Protecting these salamanders is important, and not just for the sake of biodiversity. The humans of Texas benefit from the presence of these salamanders. The salamanders help keep the water clean, water that residents and businesses rely on for everything.

"Even if people do not care about salamanders, they care about maintaining the quality of the aquifer systems that provide most of Texas with its fresh water," David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas, said in a statement.

"Fortunately, what's good for the salamanders is also really good for the people. What we need to do to protect these salamanders also happens to be the exact same things we need to do to protect the water resources that ranchers, cities, homeowners and everybody else depend upon."

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