A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small.
What do Robert Redford and a two-inch salamander have in common? They both learned to swim in Barton Springs pool in Austin, Texas. True to its name, the Barton Springs’ salamander is found only in Barton Springs—a set of four natural water springs where Redford supposedly learn to swim when he was 5 years old.
Salamanders are amphibians, meaning they spend at least part of their lives in the water. Typically they have long tails, moist skin, and slender bodies. Adults can grow up to 2.5 inches long and usually have a purplish grey coloring. The tiny critters feed on brine shrimp, and other small crustaceans underwater. They have bright red external gills and unlike many other species that move from the water to the land during adulthood, Barton Springs salamanders remain in the water their entire lives.
One thing not unique about the salamanders is that they—like so many related species—are critically endangered. Nearly one third of all documented amphibian species around the world face extinction, and the Barton Springs salamander is no exception. They rely on the pure, flowing currents of the Barton Springs to survive, and urban expansion and development in the area continues to severely contaminate the water. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the sediment runoff from construction clogs the salamanders’ gills, smothers their eggs, reduces the availability of spawning sites, and lessens water circulation and oxygen. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Barton Springs salamander as an endangered species.
The cleanliness of the Barton Springs is a critical issue for both salamanders and humans since the springs provide much of Austin’s municipal water supply. Salamanders are particularly sensitive to contaminants and the Barton Springs salamander serves as a very important indicator of the health of a water supply used by much of southern Austin. Even while they distribute clean water to the city, the springs themselves are also a treasured place that people want to see protected, and the Barton Springs salamander is a key indicator of the springs’ health. Researching them has even led to the discovery of another endangered species—the Austin blind salamander.
The Barton Springs salamander evolved under such unique and specific conditions that they might also provide valuable information to scientists about the development of the ecosystem and possibly even help in the development of modern medicine.
Luckily for us, there are a number of things people can do to help the salamanders, and none of them involve abstaining from swimming in the popular Barton Springs pool. The salamanders require clean and consistent water flow which means no dumping chemicals or waste into the springs. There are even things you can do at home to help. Little changes like shutting off water while brushing your teeth or washing dishes helps reduce the amount of water used which helps keep it in the springs for the salamanders.
Continual monitoring and protection efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local communities will be essential if we hope to continue swimming with these special and rare creatures in the future.