Salamanders: tiny creatures with a big impact

Have you ever walked through the woods and wondered who’s peering at you through the greenery? A black bear maybe? A wildcat? Strangely, one of the most influential “predators” here is probably hiding under a rock! In a lifetime of hiking, you may never glimpse these tiny “heroes,” even though the forest floor literally teems with them.

They’re called woodland salamanders. These four-legged, flat-headed, long-toed, long-tailed, bug-eyed, slippery amphibians (relatives of frogs) are at home in both land and water. And believe it or not, these tiny critters (from 3 to 7 inches long) are crucial to the flow of nutrients through our forests, and to the fight against climate change.

Salamanders? Who’d have thought?!

Salamanders breed in ponds and streams, dining on aquatic bugs, until they develop lungs that replace the external gills. Then, taking up life on land, they wander widely until they return to the same breeding pond (some species guided by earth’s magnetic field).

So how do these shy creatures help us fight global warming? Wrap your mind around this:Fallen leaves accumulate on the forest floor where they’re ripped into bits and gobbled by hoards of insects.

The resulting leaf litter contains 50% carbon. Excess carbon dioxide (CO2), released into the atmosphere, is gradually warming the Earth.

Enter the salamanders! It so happens that they feast on leaf-shredding insects. Voila: fewer bugs and more undamaged leaves.

Now, the important step: if those leaves are left intact, they pile up in layers, holding onto the carbon until it’s captured by the soil, and locked up underground.

In one day, a single salamander may eat 20 ants, two flies or beetle larvae, one adult beetle and a springtail. Multiply that by the estimated density of about 750,000 salamanders per square mile of forest, and you have an amazing system that begins with Mother Nature’s control over insects with an appetite for dead leaves, and ends with less CO2 in our atmosphere. A little mind-boggling, but it works.

The proof lies with a recent test where several enclosures (like raised-bed gardens) were created in a northwest forest; screening confined salamanders to certain enclosures, while leaf-gobbling insects had free passage throughout. The results? In enclosures with no salamanders, more leaves were shredded by the bugs, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Scientists calculate that on one acre of forest, salamanders send about 180 pounds of carbon into the soil, rather than into the air. It’s Nature’s fine-tuned system, unless (you guessed it!) humans interfere. Nowadays, logging practices and new wildlife diseases create problems. Amphibians, historically immune to fungal infections, are starting to fall prey to these, thanks perhaps to chemical contamination from human activity. Pavement, introduced into forests, contains chemicals harmful to salamanders and other amphibians, polluting ponds and wetlands.

Long ago, TV newscaster Tom Brokaw reported that amphibian numbers were dropping everywhere. He blamed natural changes beyond human control. Today, “we’ve met the enemy, and it is us.” Nevertheless, small but helpful steps are being taken. Scientists are dealing with the spread of fungal diseases, and loggers are starting to abandon those sobering clear-cuts, leaving some older trees standing to store excess carbon and create havens for wildlife.

The gradual loss of our amphibians is just another shot across the bow. Salamanders are one small piece of the puzzle, but their plight reflects our own need to solve a problem we alone created.

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Kitsap, Naturally

Don C. Brunell
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