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Smoky Mountain Salamanders

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Salclss 2.JPGAn iconic attribute of the Great Smoky Mountains is its salamanders - over thirty species live in the national park alone, from the elusive, twenty-nine inch "Hellbender" to the four-inch Jordan's red-cheeked salamander, which is endemic to the park. We joined in "Slimy Salamanders," a ranger-guided program in which the object was to catch these creatures, and subsequently we glimpsed the fast reflexes that these species must have; salamanders are small, fast, and well camouflaged, for the most part. The ranger instructed us to place them in a water-filled plastic bag once we had successfully captured them, so that they could breathe, the oils on our hands would not harm them, and so the other participants could see them as well.

Salamanders are typically thought of as aquatic creatures, but some are actually terrestrial, and we discovered the largest number of species living on land. In fact, the word "salamander" comes from the ancient Greek phrase meaning "fire animal," for they could be seen crawling out of burning logs and it was therefore believed they were born from fire. (Actually, they were just escaping the flames, since they tend to live under fallen vegetation or stones).

They belong to the order Caudata, along with newts, and they are carnivorous and mostly eat invertebrates, such as earthworms, grubs, and beetles. Some species of terrestrial salamandersSalhand.jpg are unique in that they do not have gills or lungs, but breathe through their skin instead. Most American salamanders le underground in the winter and during the daytime to avoid being eaten by predators and to stay cool and moist. In common with some lizards, they can shed their tails if attacked.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a great place to see salamanders because they are diverse and commonly spotted. They are easily found under almost any rocks, logs, or just in shaded pools. According to the National Park Service, on any given day in the Smokies, the majority of vertebrates there, humans included, are salamanders!

Mexican Axolotls Face Extinction In The Wild

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Axltl4.jpgMexican axolotls are strange salamanders that never lose their larval gills or dorsal fins. Using a process called neoteny, they do not undergo metamorphosis yet become adults underwater, where they will stay for their entire lives. But, because their freshwater habitat near Mexico City is being drained and polluted, it is not likely that the comical-looking amphibians will survive in the wild. Their popularity in aquariums and as pets has also led to the creature's diminishing numbers. Fish that prey on salamanders were introduced into the ecosystem, which was detrimental to the axolotls' populations because the amphibians are not used to being hunted, except by natural threats like herons and other large birds. And, in some places, humans consider axolotls a delicacy.

Because large populations of captive axolotls exist, they will not go entirely extinct. Reintroduction of the species is unlikely for many reasons, primarily because they would have less genetic diversity and would be more susceptible to a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, which can be fatal to amphibians and is very difficult to cure. It has currently infected thirty percent of all amphibian species.

There are seven species of axolotls, but only the Mexican axolotls never lose their gills. The others are capable of never "growing up" and coming out of the water, but they only stay larvae if the temperature is too cold for them to become adults. The carnivorous Mexican axolotls can live up to fifteen years. Like some lizards, they can replace lost body parts and are therefore used in scientific research. They grow up to 1 foot long and are currently specified as critically endangered.

But there is a chance that the axolotls will not go extinct in the wild. Scientists are working to create new refuges for the animals to live in, so that their numbers do not continue to fall and, ultimately, so that the cute creatures will survive in nature.

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