Salamanders change spots: Was it environmental stress?

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Salamanders with unusual, asymmetrical spots have been found in a pond in the middle of an Ithaca golf course. Cornell University biologists, who have compared the amphibians with symmetrically spotted specimens gathered from the same pond six decades earlier, believe they are seeing indications that changes in a salamander's spots can signal environmental trouble.

"Salamanders and frogs are considered an early-warning system for environmental stress," says Kelly Zamudio, Cornell assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "With the dramatic change in these spots, this is an early-warning system for an early warning system."

Zamudio and Amber N. Wright, a Columbia University biology graduate student, who conducted the research while she was a Cornell undergraduate, have published their findings, "Color Pattern Asymmetry as a Correlate of Habitat Disturbance in Spotted Salamanders," in the March 2002 issue of The Journal of Herpetology. The biologists embarked on this research to determine if evidence of environmental health or stress could be seen in the degree of the salamander populations' spot symmetry. Comparing today's salamanders with those gathered in the same breeding area 60 years ago, they found that over the decades the salamander spots have changed from a regular pattern to a more-asymmetrical one.

Zamudio and Wright collected salamander samples from two breeding areas that are about six miles apart and within the same watershed area in Ithaca: Bull Pasture Pond, on Cornell's Robert Trent Jones golf course, and Ringwood Pond, part of a nature reserve protected and managed by Cornell. Zamudio and Wright also examined salamanders in the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, where the specimens are kept in ethanol-filled jars, gathered from the 1910s to the 1960s by Cornell herpetologist Albert Hazen Wright and hi

Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Cornell University News Service

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