The naming of new amphibian species is a fairly routine thing. This doesn’t mean that – despite the global amphibian crisis – amphibians are actually ok and that we can stop worrying; it means that we haven’t been paying enough attention, and indeed many of the species that are being named anew are endangered, or threatened, or with tiny ranges. The current edition of Journal of Zoology includes the description of a new plethodontid salamander (aka lungless salamander): the Patch-nosed salamander Urspelerpes brucei Camp et al., 2009. The big deal about this entirely new species is that it’s from the Appalachian foothills of Georgia, USA.
Genetic data reveal that the Patch-nosed salamander is highly distinct relative to other taxa (it’s most closely related to Eurycea, the American brook salamanders), but it’s also unusual in exhibiting obvious sexual dimorphism in pigmentation: females are brownish and rather plain, while males have a pair of dark stripes running along their sides and are yellowish on the dorsal surface [see photo below, by T. Lamb]. Both sexes possess the yellow nose patch. Males are also reported to have one less vertebra than females. However, while size dimorphism is common in plethodontids, male and females of the Patch-nosed salamander are similar in size. It’s also morphologically unusual in having five (rather than four) toes. So far, very little (read: essentially nothing) is known of its behaviour and lifestyle (Camp et al. 2009).
New plethodontid species are discovered fairly frequently, especially in
South Central America: four have been named so far in 2009 (Sierra de las Minas hidden salamander Cryptotriton sierraminensis from Guatemala, Bolitoglossa cataguana from Honduras, Robinson’s web-footed salamander B. robinsoni and the Pygmy web-footed salamander B. pygmaea from the Costa Rica-Panamá border region).
However, the USA has revealed a pretty impressive list of new plethodontids too. A plethodontid from the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California was named in 1996 (the San Gabriel slender salamander Batrachoseps gabrieli Wake, 1996), while the Hell Hollow slender salamander B. diabolicus Jockusch et al., 1998, Gregarious slender salamander B. gregarius Jockusch et al., 1998 and Kings River slender salamander B. regius Jockusch et al., 1998 were all described from the Sierra Nevada in 1998. 1998 also saw the description of the Sequioa slender salamander B. kawia Jockusch et al., 1998 from California’s Tulare County. The Wandering salamander Aneides vagrans Wake & Jackman, 1999 from California was recognised as distinct relative to the Rusty salamander A. ferreus in 1999. The Gabilan Mountains slender salamander B. gavilanensis Jockusch et al., 2001 was first reported from San Benito County in California in 2001, and the San Simeon slender salamander B. incognitus Jockusch et al., 2001 was described from the Californian Santa Lucia Mountains in the same year [California slender salamander B. attenuatus shown here, from wikipedia. Not a new species: named in 1833].
Another plethodontid collected from Tulare County, California, in 1991 (though with an initially misidentified member of the species having been reported in 1973), proved to be yet another new species (the Kern Plateau salamander Batrachoseps robustus Wake et al., 2002), and the Santa Lucia Mountains also yielded both the San Lucia Mountains slender salamander B. luciae Jockusch et al., 2001 and the Lesser slender salamander B. minor Jockusch et al., 2001. Five plethodontids belonging to Eurycea, the Barton Springs salamander E. sosorum Chippindale et al., 1993, the Jollyville Plateau salamander E. tonkawae Chippindale et al., 2000, the Salado salamander Eurycea chisholmensis Chippindale et al., 2000, the Georgetown salamander E. naufragua Chippindale et al., 2000 and the Austin blind salamander E. waterlooensis Hillis et al., 2001, have all been described from Texas since 1993. Chamberlain’s dwarf salamander Eurycea chamberlaini Harrison & Guttman, 2003 was described from South Carolina in 2003 (it was not technically new, as the populations raised to species status had previously been identified as belonging to E. quadridigitata), and was later reported from Georgia and Alabama. The Cumberland dusky salamander Desmognathus abditus Anderson & Tilley, 2003 was discovered in Tennessee and the Dwarf black-bellied salamander D. folkertsi Camp et al., 2002 was described from Georgia (and later discovered in North Carolina).
The Scottbar salamander Plethodon asupak Mead et al., 2005 is yet another recently named Californian plethodontid; both the South Mountain grey-cheeked salamander P. meridianus Highton & Peabody, 2000 and Cheoah Bald salamander P. cheoah Highton & Peabody, 2000 are from North Carolina while the Big Levels salamander B. sherando Highton, 2004 is from Virginia. And this is far from a complete list… I think you get the point.
All very well and good, but these are species: the most recently named new genus from the USA is the Red Hills salamander Phaeognathus hubrichti, named in 1961: more than four decades ago. In that it is apparently not part of any of the clades currently regarded as genera, the Patch-nosed salamander is hence quite an important taxon: it represents an entirely new, hitherto unknown lineage [Patch-nosed salamander below, photo by T. Lamb].
Ok, the Patch-nosed salamander might be tiny (it’s less than 6 cm long), but the fact that the USA continues to yield new taxa even now indicates that one of the most advanced nations in the world still has a lot to offer. Indeed, you might use discoveries like this to argue that the fauna of the USA – even its tetrapod fauna – still has yet to be fully documented (and some have made this very argument). Then again, it might not be fair to single out the USA in this fashion. Here in Europe – where you might say we have a slight historical advantage in terms of scientific exploration – there are entirely new animals too, like the Black olm Proteus anguinus parkelj Sket & Arntzen, 1994… though this is, ostensibly, ‘just’ a new subspecies and not a genus… and it’s one of only a handful of post-1990 discoveries (compare that with the more than 20 new American plethodontids listed above).
And, yes, the Patch-nosed salamander is described as being of immediate conservation concern.
For more on plethodontids see…
- Coprophagy and the giraffe-neck program: more on plethodontids
- The wonder that is the internally fertilizing salamander clade: caudates part II
Ref – –
Camp, C., Peterman, W., Milanovich, J., Lamb, T., Maerz, J., & Wake, D. (2009). A new genus and species of lungless salamander (family Plethodontidae) from the Appalachian highlands of the south-eastern United States Journal of Zoology, 279 (1), 86-94 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00593.x