Somewhere in Texas, a slippery thief has made off with a cache of rare amphibians. A reward of $15,000 is being offered to anyone with information about the theft of 363 endangered salamanders from the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center in Texas.
The crime has no obvious motive, "and that's what makes this so mysterious," Collette Adkins, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told me.
"These are really fragile, small creatures that would have a difficult time surviving with a hobbyist. The first thing people think is, 'oh, they must have been stolen for the pet trade.' But they're not like snakes or turtles," Adkins said, noting that keeping them alive would be extremely difficult.
Naturally, wildlife officials are eager to retrieve the special amphibians. The San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center breeds a number of rare aquatic species, and the salamanders were kept as a "backup" population for eventual reintroduction efforts. The facility, which is affiliated with the Fish and Wildlife Service, has been working on fisheries conservation for more than 40 years, and focuses almost exclusively on at-risk wildlife.
Unfortunately for police, the salamanders' tanks weren't monitored by surveillance cameras, and there were no signs of forced entry. The original reward was set at $10,000, but the Center for Biological Diversity added $5,000 to the bounty today.
I've reached out to the Fish and Wildlife Service's San Antonio Office of Law Enforcement for their comment, and will update this story if I hear back.
People familiar with the incident suspect the thief might have stolen the animals for traditional medicine purposes. In China, a different species called the Chinese giant salamander is sometimes prized for its alleged benefits to human skin and heart health. No scientific evidence exists to support this belief. There's also no history of Texas blind salamanders or San Marcos salamanders being used in Chinese medicine.
Another theory is that some predator, such as a raccoon, managed to break into the facility and devour all 363 salamanders. But there was no carnage left at the scene, and I wouldn't bet on a hungry raccoon immaculately cleaning up its scraps.
The biggest concern right now is the fate of these amphibians. According to Adkins, both species can succumb to the smallest changes in water quality, which is one of the reasons why they're vulnerable to extinction.
Tiny (just two inches long) and lungless, the San Marcos salamander is endemic to Spring Lake and a single pool near the San Marcos River in Texas. The population is currently threatened by agricultural and residential development, and is considered threatened by the federal government and the state of Texas.
The Texas blind salamander is a subterranean-dwelling species found primarily in the San Marcos Pool of the Edwards Aquifer in Texas. It's also completely aquatic, making it even more susceptible to groundwater pollutants or shifts in water levels. The species has been listed as endangered by the federal government and the state of Texas.
Anyone convicted of this crime could face fines up to $100,000, and may serve up to one year in prison. If you're reading this and have knowledge of the salamanders' whereabouts, you're encouraged to contact the Fish and Wildlife Service's San Antonio Office of Law Enforcement at (210) 681-8419 or Operation Game Thief at 1-800-792-GAME.
Godspeed, little ones!