Aug 31

Late this summer, over 3,500 ecologists, biologists and conservationists descended upon Austin, Texas, USA, for the annual Ecological Society of America (ESA) conference. Attending, presenting and exhibiting at ESA is always a pleasure for ARKive staff as we often meet scientists who have imagery of species we’ve been searching for or are species experts of threatened species already on ARKive.

One such scientist is Hayley Gillespie, a recent university graduate who dedicated her thesis to the study of the Barton Springs salamander, a species local to Austin, TX. Hayley was happy to share with ARKive why she studies this amphibian and give a unique view on conservation from a species expert perspective.

  Barton Springs salamander photo  Barton springs salamander photo

What is the Barton Springs salamander?

The Barton Springs Salamander is a member of the genus Eurycea  and lives in the freshwater springs in downtown Austin, TX. Unlike many other salamander species, the Barton Springs salamander doesn’t experience metamorphosis and actually keeps its feathery gills and lives in an aquatic habitat its entire life. This characteristic probably evolved as the climate in central Texas started to become more hot and dry thousands of years ago. The springs where the salamanders live provide a good “refuge” from the hot, dry climate on land and the few salamanders that were able to stay in the water probably survived better than those that didn’t. One drawback: the Barton Springs Salamander cannot survive out of water any longer than you can hold your breath!

What are the conservation challenges?

According to Hayley, the Barton Springs Salamander faces many challenges and it’s amazing it is still here! Three of the four springs that make up Barton Springs have been dammed, turning their once stream-like habitat into an unsuitable pond-like habitat. The main Barton Springs Pool is actually a public swimming hole beloved by the citizens of Austin but unfortunately not very good for the salamanders that live there.

Barton Springs Pool in Austin, TX, USA

Barton Springs Pool in Austin, TX, USA

The Barton Springs Salamanders also need clean, plentiful water from the Edwards Aquifer to feed their springs which is constantly challenged by new development in and around the city. Combined with natural stresses like droughts (which are projected to become more frequent and severe with climate change), these challenges make life pretty difficult for Barton Springs Salamanders.

How can you help?

The best way to help protect this species is to ensure that there is abundant and clean water in the Edwards Aquifer well into the future. Local residents can choose to use less water so that groundwater is not pumped as heavily, and getting involved in influencing local and regional sustainable development issues can have a big impact. Additionally, the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) Alliance is a local organization that advocates for aquifer protection and sustainable development in Austin.

In the end, Hayley sums it up quite nicely, “I think it’s important to simply know more about how we can help protect this unique piece of our natural heritage. After all, it lives right here with us, and no where else! That’s pretty neat.”

Neat indeed! Have you ever seen a Barton Springs salamander or learned about a threatened amphibian in your part of the world? Why not share your experience with us?

Liana Vitali, ARKive Science, Education and Outreach Officer, Wildscreen USA