Earth Day is Friday, April 22, 2022. It’s a day to celebrate our natural resources and think of ways we can conserve and maintain clean habitats
One of our most cherished natural resources is the Edwards Aquifer -- the source of fresh water for millions around San Antonio and home to many at-risk species.
If there’s a poster child for conservation efforts within the Edwards Aquifer it’s the Texas blind salamander. In fact, the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center keeps a backup population alive and well just in case something catastrophic happens to the aquifer or the rivers that feed it.
The San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center feeds and breeds the Texas blind salamanders to keep the population strong. The center says it’s a charismatic species, and that’s what makes it a great mascot for the aquifer.
“Who doesn’t love a salamander that’s kind of odd and a little creepy looking, but cute at the same time?” said Katherine Bockrath, Ph.d., lead researcher at the center. “I think people gravitate to it and its cuteness and its slight creepiness, but also its mystery.”
The blind salamander really is a bit of a mystery. Details about the species’ population are a bit fuzzy. But researchers are working to get some clarity.
“We do some tagging where we catch the animals,” said Adam Daw, Refugia Lead at the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center. “We’ll release some that we catch and we’ll tag them so that if we catch them again, we’ll know it and can give us an idea of how many are down there.”
In reality, it’s difficult to know just how large or small the Texas blind salamander population is, simply because the tiny creatures live deep underground and underwater in a vast, pitch-black aquifer that spans thousands of miles. But we do know that they’re likely a top predator within the aquifer system by eating worms and small shrimp.
Researchers have also determined that the salamanders can live for quite a long time because of their slow metabolism.
“We have some here that have lived about 10 to 15 years so far,” Daw said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they live 20 years or more.”
So, if the Texas blind salamanders live for quite some time, and their population is healthy, why do we need to regulate the water level and quality of the aquifer?
“They have very permeable skin,” Bockrath said. “If there’s some contaminant in the water, it’s going to permeate them, too ... they’re super sensitive to environmental changes.”
And, again, these conservation efforts are not just about the protected species.
“We’re actually preserving these ecosystems and these river systems for our use, too,” Bockrath said.