Monday, May 12, 2014

Natural Springs, Brownback Salamanders, and the Good Folks of St. Clair County

By Sean Graham

Part I: Discovery     

    It took some time before I finally discovered the purpose of the big balloon heads. The male Brownback Salamander’s (Eurycea aquatica) head is “grotesquely enlarged,” especially compared to slimmer species of brook salamanders (such as the Southern Two-lined Salamander, Eurycea cirrigera), which themselves have rather uncouth fleshy knobs called “cirri” dangling from their lips. The function and significance of all these weird adornments had been anybody’s guess since they were first noticed in 1927. The fact that they occur only in males is a big clue. 

Male Southern Two-lined Salamander (L)
and Male Brownback Salamander (R)
    While I was living in Auburn, Alabama, we tried staging territorial encounters between Brownback Salamanders as well as between Southern Two-lined Salamanders to see if the Brownback Salamanders were more aggressive than their little-headed counterparts. But, regardless of the salamander’s head size, both species tended to simply sit like old, wet mattresses during encounters with intruders, and at best nudged them with half-hearted disinterest. After I’d already moved away from the species’ homeland in Alabama, I became convinced that we had not properly tested the idea. Maybe the salamanders do fight, just not over space. We needed to see if they would fight over females. 

    I decided to return to Auburn from Pennsylvania and after a heart-wrenching reunion with an old friend I collected enough salamanders to do the study right. Over the next week I would run dozens of trials in the lab. The set up was simple: introduce a female into a male’s home container and allow them time for foreplay. Then introduce a rival male.

    After the original male spent 30 minutes tenderly rubbing the back of a female, I carefully added another male into the container of SS-03. The intruder walked slowly toward the courting pair. Although I had hoped for something exciting, I was not prepared for what happened next. 

“What good are salamanders?” 

    I can understand this question coming from an average member of the public, but these words have been spoken to me more than once from my own father. And you know how that goes: any of the usual communication problems between two people are compounded by the strange dynamic between father and son—somehow, even though my dad and I are close, we speak at right angles to each other. Unfortunately in America it is not a given that if something is good for an ecosystem, it is good for all of us. And if I can’t convince my own father, what chance do I have with one of those land owners, or a policy maker, or worse yet, an industrialist whose legitimate interests are in conflict with those of wildlife?

    To make matters worse, as scientists we are supposed to be dispassionate and objective. And objectively, some life on Earth is useless. It’s garnish. An ornament of excessive biodiversity. I don’t tell people that organisms should be considered in terms of dollars and cents. It cheapens the sanctity of life. At a certain point, science has no place in conservation. It is an ethical issue. 

    I suggest a different strategy: draw attention to the value of life as part of our natural heritage—natural heritage being a wonderfully vague and unashamedly unscientific term meaning something natural we hold dear. Put species in the same category as a three-hundred year old building that George Washington once ate lunch in. Of course, most folks will tell you the best way to make people care is to add a human dimension. So here I’ll tell the story of the Brownback Salamander, a small, insignificant species of the springs of Alabama. 

Valhermoso Springs, Morgan County, Alabama
    To tell the story right I have to mention the many people I met along the way, for with few exceptions the springs that are home to the salamander are on private land. I met colorful and dignified local folks from Alabama to Tennessee, and they allowed me surprisingly unfettered access to their property, and in one particularly astounding case, their water supply. These people are as unique and as integrally tied to the landscape as the salamander is. They drink from the springs where the salamander breeds. The salamander and these folks are united by their love of the springs. 

    Nobody could tell the full story of the Brownback Salamander without going into some detail about a particular site called Sander’s Spring. These crystal waters—waters so sweet you can smell them—bubble from a gorgeous plank of north central Alabama called the Shoal Creek Valley. Here we found clues that helped us solve nearly every secret the salamander tried to hide. 

    But I can’t tell the story of Sander’s Spring without also talking about the tornado of 2011. 

*** 

    Nobody is sure who first discovered the Brownback Salamander. What is certain is who first described it as a new species, which in the long run is the most important thing. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Francis Rose was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia when he first heard about a strange salamander from the springs near Birmingham, Alabama. He heard this from another Francis—Francis Bush—who had until recently been a graduate student at Georgia and later became a professor at Howard College in Birmingham. Details are sketchy about when exactly Francis Bush first found the salamanders, but it would have certainly been at Glenn Spring, a natural limestone spring in the residential area of Bessemer, Alabama. 

    The distributions of different species were only then becoming understood, and brand new species were being found in the strangest places. For example, the recent discovery of the Red Hills Salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti) sent shockwaves through the small and tight-knit herpetological community, and if something like that could be hiding in the hills of south Alabama, smaller and less conspicuous species could surely be still awaiting discovery. In 1962 at a conference in Washington, Barry Valentine, a professor from Ohio State University, was showing off the only known specimen of the recently discovered Red Hills Salamander, daring the attendees to tell him whether or not it was a real species or just an aberration. Francis Rose, who was there to give a presentation at the meeting, guessed wrong. Valentine also had a jar of strangely-proportioned salamanders supposedly collected somewhere in Alabama. He enticed passersby with them, telling all who would listen that they most likely represented yet another new species.

    Soon after, Rose packed up his bags and left Georgia for grad school at Tulane. Since Birmingham was on the way, he crashed at Francis Bush’s house, and Bush took him out to see the strange salamanders of Bessemer on October 6, 1962. After a productive afternoon, they had quite a haul of the salamanders in hand, and Rose became convinced that they were different from any described species. From Glenn Spring especially, they are very dark brown—nothing like the bright yellow color typical of their closest relatives in the area. They are shaped quite differently too, being stouter, with a shorter tail, and—in the males at least—a huge melon head. 

Francis Rose today. He is currently a professor of
Biology at Texas State University and recently published
a book about Texas Tortoises.
    Rose remembers he wasn’t that excited at first. Instead, he told me, “it only hit me after we were through collecting. I remember that we sat down and then the euphoria swept over us both. At the time I think we commented that we must be the two luckiest people on earth.”

    His excitement would be short lived. Rose was moving away from home for the first time and remembers his first year at Tulane as a rather sad time. And soon he would raise the ire of Barry Valentine. 

    Rose and Bush began writing a manuscript describing their salamander as a new species and eventually Rose sent Valentine four specimens for his opinion. From old pictures, Valentine appears to have been a rather stereotypical egg-headed professor, and he was prone to pedantically over-emphasize certain words—for his pronunciation of “Phaeognathus” he stressed the “og,” which nobody else does. At first there was no response from Valentine himself but Rose heard from one of Valentine’s students that he was livid. Eventually, Valentine sent Rose a letter saying that he was sorely upset. He accused Rose of knowing full well that the new salamander was the same one he had been shown in a jar at the conference in Washington. Valentine warned Rose not to proceed, because he had already secured a publication source and was soon going to describe it. Rose decided to back off. He also asked for his specimens back, which he never received. In fact, he never heard from Barry Valentine again. 

The article that first described Eurycea aquatica
    A few months later the editor of the now-defunct scientific journal Tulane Studies in Zoology, for which Rose had become the student editor, asked Rose about the new salamander he’d found. He asked him how long he thought it would take to finish the description. Rose told him it would take about a week. A week later the paper was out to reviewers. The formal description of the Brownback Salamander appeared in the very next issue. Rose sent a copy to Barry Valentine. 

    From corresponding with Rose I get the impression he regrets having scooped Valentine. He admits that, “the negative aspects of this episode lie clearly at my feet because, I suspect, in hindsight, that had I made the appropriate phone call, all misunderstandings could have been eliminated.” He even hears from time to time from colleagues that Barry told them to say hello. I tried to reassure Rose that I for one thought he did the right thing. Who knows if Valentine would have ever really gotten around to describing it? What if he had been hit by a train on his way to work one day, and nobody found out where he collected the salamanders? If this had been a new bird species waiting to be described, ornithologists would cut the throats of their sisters to be the first to describe them. Since herpetology is such a small field, it has an unspoken code of propriety that sometimes gets a little ridiculous. 

     Rose and Bush did the right thing. But their troubles, and the salamander’s troubles, were only just beginning.

Don't miss Part II tomorrow.

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