The Fate of the Salamanders

The Fate of the Salamanders

We’ve got some pretty interesting critters living just south of Devil’s Lake State Park in the land that was once the Badger Ordinance property.  They are called Tiger salamanders.  While Tiger salamanders are not all that rare in Wisconsin, the ones in Badger are.  You see, these guys don’t do what Tiger salamanders are supposed to do. They don’t quite grow up, and they don’t ever live on the land. The Badger Salamanders were an amazing discovery and really quite rare if not quite “natural”. Soon however, their home will be destroyed and these unique Salamanders will either be moved or left to their fate. 

Tiger Salamanders are considered common in Wisconsin and are the largest land dwelling salamanders, reaching up to nearly a foot in length. But as I said, the Badger bunch are not “land dwelling”. You see, Tiger Salamanders start out in the water.  Like most amphibians, Tiger salamanders lay their eggs in the water.  The eggs hatch and develop into lava called “efts”.  (In frogs we know them as tadpoles.) Over time the efts change. Through the process of metamorphoses, they lose their feathery gills and tail fins to get ready for life on land.  That’s where our Badger salamanders didn’t follow the program.  The Badger salamanders make their home in an old army reservoir that has no escape route.  It is guessed that at one time maybe 40 or 50 years ago a few Tiger salamanders entered the reservoir to lay their eggs and became trapped.  They would have died of course, but the eggs they deposited would have hatched.  It is thought that a few of these baby salamanders may have simply stopped changing, at least partially.  They grew up, but they kept their gills and fins. If the young salamanders didn’t adapt they would have eventually died off as well.  Over the years through an accelerated form of natural selection the reservoir became home to our unique water-dwelling Tiger salamanders.  Cool huh?

So here’s the deal. It happens. Some scientists believe that water-dwelling salamanders may have been more common before people introduced fish into practically every lake and pond in the state. Our population (said to be around 1000 animals) is rare, but not un-heard of and the army wants to demolish the reservoir. So the decision has been made to move the salamanders in the assumption that once exposed to “normal” conditions they will slowly change into their land dwelling selves. Others will be relegated to a life in aquariums. The process of finding new homes for these guys is going on now and the plan is to remove them this spring.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re missing something of an opportunity here.

As I mentioned, Tiger salamanders reaching their the reproductive stage without undergoing the normal process of metamorphosis is not unheard of. (The condition is called “neoteny,” by the way.)  However, this population is unique in that they have been completely closed off from the outside world for nearly half a century and have adapted into an independent population which simply bypasses the process of metamorphosis.  If left alone for another 50 years, 100 years, etc., what happens? Are we seeing the very first steps in the evolution of a distinct sub-species? Or are they just a quirky accident, a byproduct of man’s interference?  Regardless, it seems that their existence right here in the Baraboo Hills provides us with a unique opportunity for study and learning if the Badger population could be left to their own devices as part of the future Sauk Prairie Recreational Area. Certainly the reservoir could be made safe for humans with a few modifications? Maybe there is another location for the complete population somewhere else within Badger? I can envision so many opportunities for scientific study and maybe more importantly for locals, opportunities for high school and college science classes, elementary school groups, eco-tours and anyone interested in nature. If a community can be the “Home of the (Non-existent) Ivory-Bill” or “Black Bear Capital”, would not these unique little amphibians just be another feather in the cap for the Baraboo Hills Region?  It just feels like we should pause a moment and have a much more public discussion of our little water-dwelling salamander’s fate.

Badger Army Ammunition Plant Salamanders Video  (2011)

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Top photo by: utahmatz

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3 comments


    1. Author
      derrick

      The Axolotl is also a neotenic salamander closely related to the tiger salamander. While the Axolotl salamander never loses its gills, the local’s do outside of rare situations such as in the pools at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.

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