One question I get a lot from people is “why salamanders”? While I’ve worked with different taxa, I do have a unique fondness for salamanders. This year PARC (Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation) has designated it the year of the salamander.
So in honor of the year of the salamander I would like to answer the question “why salamanders”? Plus give you some fun facts about why they’re so cool!
1.) They’re everywhere AND you can catch them! There are a lot of beautiful animals I saw as a child, birds, reptiles, mammals, but what was the one thing I could pick up in the wild almost every time I looked for them? Salamanders! Growing up, these red backed salamanders, Plethodon cinereus, were under every rock and log in my yard.
Now, as a biologist this makes them a great tool for outreach and education!
2.) They have cool courtship and mating behavior. This is something most people don’t think about, but when I first heard I had a ‘whoa, that’s awesome!’ reaction. A two-lined salamander, Eurycea bislineata, male will encircle the head of a female with their bodies. The male then scratches the females back with his teeth, allowing his mental gland secretions to absorb into her body (crazy, right???). These secretions help to stimulate courtship in the females. If the female accepts the mating, the two salamanders will perform a tail straddle dance and the female will pick up spermatophores deposited on the ground by the male! Then after attaching her eggs to the underside of a rock in a stream, these sweet mommies will guard the eggs until hatching. Who would have thought these little salamanders have such complex behavior?
3.) They regenerate limbs, and other body parts including hearts and spinal cord! In fact, a newt can lose half of their heart and grow it back. They survive by forming a blood clot, and then regenerate a functioning heart! There’s a lot of research into how understanding salamander regeneration may aid in human limb regeneration.
4.) They have huge genomes. I struggle with this one because doing population genomics on a species with an estimated genome size of 30 Gb (compared to human genome of 3.2 Gb) is tough! But, I have to admit it is pretty cool! Salamander genome sizes range from 14 to 120 Gb! This mudpuppy, Necturus maculosus, has the largest estimated genome size in salamanders:
These are just a few tidbits of why I find salamanders so cool. I would love to hear more of your favorite fun facts about salamanders in the comments!