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San Marcos biologists have a backup plan to protect endangered species in the Edwards Aquifer

By on May 16, 2022 0

At the San Marcos Aquatic Resource Center, about 45 blind Texas salamanders float in a freshwater tank, ready to spring forward at the slightest movement. Almost translucent in color and walking on small, spindly legs, cave dwellers mostly remain seated, their flat, smooth heads sometimes raised with two tiny black dots under the skin where their eyes would be.

Desiree Moore, research biologist for the Aquatic Resources Center, nets a salamander and places it on a gloved hand. The amphibian moves quickly, sensing a different environment. But Moore moves faster, using his other hand to keep the creature from falling into the tank.

“They can move very quickly whenever they want,” she said. “I have to watch them closely.”

This reservoir is one of many refuges at the Aquatic Resource Center, a space that shelters and supports vulnerable populations in the event that something catastrophic happens in their natural habitat. The refuge program is part of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, which began a decade ago, to protect federally listed endangered and threatened species that live in the Edwards Aquifer. and the Comal and San Marcos springs.

Besides the Texas blind salamanders, other reservoirs contain fountain darts, San Marcos Comal Springs salamander beetles, and others, all endangered or threatened species that depend on the Edwards Aquifer for their survival.

The refuge, a handful of buildings on the south side of San Marcos, began in 2017. The goal for researchers, biologists and scientists at the site is to have a backup population – several hundred of a given species – that can be reintroduced to the aquifer and springs if the natural population is extinguished. Five years after the initiative began, the shelter team has made significant progress in growing separate populations and studying the creatures that live underground.

“The whole point of conservation, of protecting these species, is to preserve [the aquifer] for future generations while still being able to use the resource,” said Katie Bockrath, chief research biologist at the Aquatic Resources Center. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”

In the tanks

When Adam Daw and his team go into the field to collect blind Texas salamanders for the refuge, they take one out of three. They want enough to achieve the project’s goal, but not enough to harm the natural population.

Daw, who is in charge of breeding at the center, oversees the conservation and care of the species. When in the field, he uses a cluster of pistachios to lure blind salamanders into a fine-mesh net. The team places the net on different pockets of underwater springs that connect to the Edwards Aquifer and throws in some pistachios. The nuts attract small insects and fish that the blind salamanders eat, luring the salamanders to the spot.

Once collected, species are quarantined at the center for at least 30 days to prevent them from spreading fungus or disease to others.

“We’ll just observe the animals in general and then after the 30 days we’ll move on to swabbing certain species,” Daw said. “We have to check first if they’re positive for anything, make sure they’re healthy and then move them with the whole group.”

The team also needs to track genetic diversity. Without such diversity, the species could have genetic problems, which could harm the population. It’s something people at the shelter have been researching recently, he said.

Additionally, Daw said, the team needs to be able to keep the population breeding and thriving for years in case certain conditions prevent reintroduction for an extended period of time, such as a contaminant dumped into the Edwards Aquifer.

After completing the quarantine, the creatures are placed in research tanks or tiny tank habitats to survive.

One thing researchers watch for is cannibalism, in which salamanders have been known to indulge when placed with others, especially if those others are smaller. In one case, a blind salamander ate another that was only a few millimeters smaller than itself. Researchers caught it just as half of the attacked salamander’s body was sticking out of the attacker’s mouth. They saved the head and ended up 3D printing it for research.

“These guys will eat anything they can get their hands on,” Moore said. “They’re the apex predator in their habitat, which means they just do what they want.”

The species is also known to eat its young, so the team at the center will separate the eggs from the others in a different tank. They then hatch the baby salamanders in a refrigerator.

Everyone at the center is super careful. Shoes should be cleaned and gloves should be worn. They keep empty tanks on hand in case there is a fungal rash, disease or other problem in another tank. The team even has a rescue shelter for the rescue shelter, in Uvalde.

“We are doing everything we can to keep these species safe,” Bockrath said.

“For generations to come”

Within the ecosystem of the Edwards Aquifer, many animals at its core are good indicator species. Declining populations and sickly blind salamanders or fast moving beetles are a good first sign that something is wrong with the aquifer.

That’s just one reason it’s important to keep these species alive, said Kristy Kollaus, environmental scientist at the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

“You want to keep that balance,” she said. “If you lose key species, like the blind salamander, how does that affect the rest of the aquifer? And then, in turn, what impact does that have on the people who depend on it? species are under protection, which maintains the levels of the aquifer, so we don’t pump too much and we have the resource for the future.

Typically, it takes twice as much energy for a system, such as an aquifer, to recover something than it does to maintain it. Likewise, restoring a degraded aquifer to its previous state can be expensive and labor intensive, Kollaus said. It is therefore much cheaper in the long term to conserve it and keep the species that help keep it alive and thriving.

Additionally, scientists can study the species up close and better understand life below the surface. A researcher analyzes the development of the eyes and how the blind salamander became blind.

And while researchers are doing their part to protect the species, the team said San Antonio residents can help protect habitat by being aware of how much water they use, following restrictions. watering and being aware of any fertilizers or contaminants that could flow into the aquifer. .

“We use their habitat,” Bockrath said. “It’s not just ours. We all depend on it. »

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. ReportforAmerica.org. [email protected]