The Salamanders that Refuse to Grow Up

In a Wisconsin reservoir, these normally terrestrial animals have managed not only to survive but to thrive underwater

The Eastern Tiger Salamander has managed to survive in an inhospitable and unlikely habitat in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society)

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“The salamanders adapted to what Badger gave them,” says Mossman. “The whole system is pretty unusual, but they’ve managed to thrive in this environment. It’s all theirs.”

The reservoir may not be theirs for long, however. It’s scheduled to be drained as early as this fall. Maintaining the reservoir requires work and money, and with the transition of the Badger property to civilian use, it just isn’t needed anymore.

The researchers are scrambling to learn as much as they can before the reservoir is gone. They also hope to find a home for the salamanders that will preserve their neotenic state. Once removed from the reservoir, the salamanders will metamorphose fairly quickly—within several weeks for most neotenic adults—so the habitat is just as important as the salamanders themselves for understanding neoteny and what happened at Badger. All of this is complicated by the many still unanswered questions about the salamanders’ biology. It’s hard to find the salamanders a home when the factors governing their neotenic status aren’t yet known.

“It really is an amazing educational opportunity,” says Mossman. “The Badger salamanders are a living testament to the persistence of life.”

Erika Janik is a writer and radio producer in Madison, Wisconsin.

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