Why Texas salamanders may be an example of the growing threat of extinction worldwide

Austin
Valdina Farms Salamander at UT

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Many of the growing pressures on wildlife listed in a new United Nations report can be seen in Texas, biologists say. For example, there are risks for salamanders that live throughout the state. 

The U.N. report

Monday, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (a U.N. intergovernmental committee) released an extensive report which documents an “unprecedented” decline of nature and species extinction rates “accelerating.”

Notably, the report identified that one million species around the globe are threatened with extinction, more than ever before in human history. They added that many of these species will be extinct within decades. 

Extinction, the report states, isn’t just bad for the species themselves but hurts the planet and the people who inhabit it. They say the drivers of this change, in order of greatest impact, are: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of living things, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

The report, compiled by 145 expert authors from over 50 countries finds current responses globally to these dangers “insufficient” and that “transformative changes” are needed to protect nature. The report calls itself “the most comprehensive assessment of its kind” and looks at changes over the past five decades as well as thousands of scientific and governmental sources. 

The report observes that one of the groups most at risk is the class of animals known as amphibians with 40% of the world’s amphibians threatened.  Texas happens to be home to a rare mix of amphibians, including many species of salamanders. 

Texas salamanders

A Valdina Farms Salamander at a UT Austin lab.This type of salamander is found in Central Texas (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard). 

According to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the endangered salamanders in Texas are the Austin Blind Salamander, the Barton Springs Salamander and the Texas Blind Salamander. The Texas salamanders listed as threatened are the Georgetown Salamander, the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, the Salado Salamander, and the San Marcos Salamander. 

“Many of these salamanders live in caves or underground in aquifers,” explained David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology at UT Austin who has been studying Texas salamanders for more than 40 years. 

Hillis is the director of UT’s Biodiversity Center and believes there is tremendous value in learning about the species that make up the world around us. 

“Here in Texas, for instance, we have these beautiful and unique organisms that live in the aquifers and springs of the Texas Hill Country area that’s beloved by Texans and that’s part of what makes it special– that the species are found here and nowhere else,” he said. 

Hillis pointed out that salamanders hold clues about how the land and water around Texas are faring, their survival is contingent on water in the Edwards Aquifer.

Just this January, he and his colleagues announced they had found three new species of Central Texas salamanders — one of which lives west of Austin and is “critically endangered.” They also found that a species of salamander that lives in Georgetown is actually more endangered than was previously thought. 

Hillis explained that the findings from the U.N. report line up with what he’s been seeing in populations of Texas salamanders. 

“The loss of species diversity worldwide, unfortunately, doesn’t come as a surprise to most biologists who study biodiversity,” Hillis said. “And some groups, especially amphibians, are particularly threatened with extinction.”

Hillis said that amphibians around the world are at risk for reasons such as habitat loss, habitat destruction, and major diseases spread by humans. 

“Locally in Texas, our best example of that is the loss of a lot of these groundwater salamanders,” he added. 

“Our genetic analysis of the salamanders shows they been living and diversifying here in Texas for tens of millions of years and yet just over the course of a few decades, many of the populations have been lost as we’ve lost springs,” Hillis said. “So the kind of overuse of the water supply that many Texans have noticed in recent decades is greatly affecting many of the populations of salamanders.”

Hillis explained that the salamanders serve as a “canary in a coal mine for us and tells us when there are problems associated with that ecosystem.”

For example, salamanders offer one of the best indicators for environmental quality, he said. 

“It’s not a case of salamanders versus people, in fact, the salamanders and the people are on the same side of this equation, if we work to protect the salamanders we work to protect human populations, so really it’s a win-win situation for both sides,” he said. 

He and his team have documented fourteen species of salamanders ranging as far west as the Pecos River and as far east as Austin. 

One member of Hillis’ team is Ruben Tovar, a Ph.D. student at UT Austin in integrative biology. 

Tovar believes that the blind versus not-blind traits in salamanders could be used in research on human congenital diseases and adapting to perpetual darkness. Salamanders have already been widely studied for a number of reasons, including their ability to regenerate limbs.

He worries that a lack of water conservation or preservation of aquifers could prevent researchers from unlocking more scientific answers. 

“They (the salamanders) are relying on us to retain this pristine water source, but when we think about it, this is our water resource too,” said Tovar.

“With the amount of growth in our region, we need to think about actually how we’re using our water, how we’re protecting our water,” Tovar added. 

Some developers and citizens have expressed concerns over the protections for these salamanders. Protections for the salamanders have also caused hurdles for public infrastructure projects in the Austin area. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, who has been involved in other efforts to delist certain endangered Texas species, declined to comment for this story. 

But the UT scientists maintain, what is good for the salamanders is good for the people nearby. 

Observing the fragile balance in Austin

The city of Austin has its own resources to protect some of the local species of salamanders that are federally protected. At the Austin Salamander Conservation Center (known as “the breeding facility”) the city raises the endangered Barton Springs and Austin Blind salamanders.

This facility is part of a permit with U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, one piece of a larger plan that keeps the nearby Barton Springs Pool open to the public (yes, if you’ve ever gone swimming in Barton Springs Pool you’ve likely gone swimming close to these salamanders).

The breeding facility houses a second population of the endangered salamanders “in case there’s ever a catastrophe that causes these species to go extinct in the wild.”

The Barton Springs Salamander has only been found in Travis and Hays counties, the Austin Blind Salamander has only been found so far at Zilker Park in Austin — nowhere else in the world. 

The 300 Barton Springs Salamanders and 50 Austin Blind Salamanders living at the facility are ready in the event of the worst case scenario. Only then would these reserve salamanders be bred with the remaining wild salamanders, then their young would be released to repopulate the springs. 

The city says the salamanders at their facility breed “really readily,” almost all were born in captivity.

Donelle Robinson, an Environmental Scientist with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, says the largest threats to Austin’s salamanders are changes in water quality, the amount of water available, and habitat destruction. 

“They’re the first ones that will notice but there are bigger issues that are happening,” Robinson said of the salamanders. “So they require clean water quality. We require that too if we’re going to swim in or drink that water.”

“So if the salamanders start disappearing, because of water quality issues, that probably means that we probably wouldn’t want to go swimming Barton Springs Pool,” Robinson continued. “So even though it feels like we’re disconnected from them, what’s good for the salamanders is good for all of the other species exist in that habitat, including us.”

Robinson explained that any time a new area around Austin’s springs changes, pollutants get added to the water, and the salamanders can get those pollutants in runoff water to the streams. 

“We also see competition for water as humans can take away the groundwater resources, then that could ultimately lead some springs to dry up faster then they would otherwise,” she said. 

Robinson said she absolutely sees parallels between the U.N. report findings and the conditions facing Texas salamanders. 

“Some of the things that they mention are at the same reasons that the Barton Springs salamander and the Austin Blind salamander are listed as endangered species,” she said. “Being listed as endangered means that they are considered at risk of extinction.”

She added that the U.N. report mentions how three-quarters of the land environment on earth has been significantly altered by human actions. 

“So if you think about that, how could there not be an impact of that? I mean we set aside preserves but when there’s that much being changed, it leads to effects,” Robinson said.  

Austin’s population of salamanders is relatively stable, so Robinson doesn’t expect a population decline outside of “a major disaster.”

Under the right conditions, these salamanders can live for a long time — though it’s unclear how long. One salamander has been alive at the breeding facility since the facility was created 20 years ago. The scientists say it’s possible these amphibians could live much longer. 

The U.N. report mentioned that changing human behaviors will be necessary to turn the tide for many of these endangered species.

Robinson explained that the city of Austin has purchased and will continue to purchase water quality protection lands in the recharge zones of Barton Springs, to protect that land from being developed in ways that could decrease the water quality.    

Additionally, the city has a partnership with the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to make sure that the next time Austin experiences a serious drought, that Barton Springs could still keep flowing. 

“I think the biggest thing that people can do is to support the people and organizations that are doing this work,” Robinson said. “And you know I think the city of Austin is doing what it can.”

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