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Salamander Twitter Is a Light in the Darkness

One man’s obsession with the adorable amphibians caught on in a year of scandals and disasters of all sorts threatening to overwhelm us.

by Asia Murphy
Dec 20 2017, 9:10pm

Fire salamander sitting on boletus in autumnal forest. Image: Brum/Shutterstock

When Mark Mandica had trouble picking which of his many salamander pictures he would tweet last fall, he did what any of us would do: he made an event of it with a dedicated hashtag: #ambystomaweek. Little did he expect the salavanche (salamander avalanche) to follow.

“I was trying to decide which pictures to tweet to the two, maybe three other people I thought would be excited to see,” Mandica wrote to me in a direct message on Twitter. As the executive director of the Amphibian Foundation, he is focused on saving the frosted flatwoods salamander, a highly threatened southeastern species with glossy black skin threaded through with silver, a biological homage to kintsugi. “I wasn’t really expecting anyone to notice, haha.”

People noticed. Soon the hashtag was filled with other salamanthusiasts (salamander enthusiasts) sharing pictures and facts of the chunky amphibians.

There are a number of mole salamander species belonging to the family Ambystomatidae, including the California tiger salamander (thoroughly dragged in an Onion article) and the ladies-only salamander lineage that steals genes from males from other species. Mandica, who notes he is a “huge Ambystoma dork,” probably expected the salanami (salamander tsunami) to stop there.

However, it was just getting started.

A few weeks later, Mary Kate O’Donnell, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, declared it #plethodontidweek.

“I was just copying Mark,” O’Donnell told me over DM. “Plethodontid week is probably easier to have blow up because there’s way more species in the family [Plethodontidae]. And they’re cuter, if you ask me.”

The salamone (salamander cyclone) was gaining strength.

Plethodontid week was summarily followed by #cryptobranchidweek, dedicated to the family of the largest salamander in North America (the hellbender AKA snot otter AKA devil dog) and the world (the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders, which can grow to the size of a grown man).

Even without these weeks of salabration (salamander celebration), this has been a quite a year for the adorable amphibians. David Muñoz, a Pennsylvania State graduate student, made local headlines by finding that adding glow sticks to minnow traps led to higher salamander catches. Indeed, red-backed salamanders seem to live rave-ready, with some individuals having UV-visible, fluorescent tail-specks. Muñoz, who noticed these specks while conducting research, believes they might be important for helping the salamanders see each other in low-light conditions.

In addition, the Jackson’s climbing salamander (AKA amphibian hide-and-seek champion) was found in Guatemala after an absence of 42 years. And the mossy-flecked, tree-climbing green salamanders of Appalachia have been found reclaiming old mines despite severe habitat disturbance.

But not all’s good in Salamanderville. Continued habitat loss, climate change, and fungal diseases like chytrid and Bsal threaten the cute slimies. But conservationists like Mandica remain positive. He hopes to release captively bred frosted flatwood salamanders into the wild in 2018.

“I am finding most of my positivity in regards to salamander conservation when engaging children and the public,” Mandica wrote. “When they meet one, and see how adorable they are, and learn about how important they are to the planet, that’s extremely encouraging.”

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