The Center for Biological Diversity notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today of new research revealing that the Shasta salamander in California is actually three species — each more endangered than previously thought.
The paper, published this month by scientists at U.C. Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, increases pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to protect the salamanders under the Endangered Species Act.
The Shasta salamander already had a fairly narrow range restricted to a single county. But the new paper finds that each species has even fewer populations, and a smaller range that may increase the impact of the threats they face.
“This study shows Shasta County salamanders are even rarer than we thought and desperately need federal protection,” said Jenny Loda, a Center for Biological Diversity biologist and attorney who works to protect vulnerable amphibians and reptiles. “Like too many California amphibians, these salamanders are spiraling toward extinction. To preserve these amazing animals, the Fish and Wildlife Service has to protect them quickly under the Endangered Species Act.”
The salamanders suffer from numerous threats, including plans to raise the level of Shasta Dam, limestone quarrying, timber harvesting and roads, which led the Center to include them in a 2012 Endangered Species Act petition.
In response to that petition, in 2015 the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the Shasta salamander may qualify for Endangered Species Act protection. According to a work plan developed by the Service, the Shasta salamander is not scheduled to receive a 12-month finding until 2022.
For the new paper, researchers used multiple analytical methods to revise the taxonomy of the Shasta salamander and identified two additional new species, the Samwel Shasta salamander and the Wintu Shasta salamander.
The Samwel Shasta salamander was named for its original discovery site, Samwel Cave, and the Wintu Shasta salamander is named for the original habitants of the region, the Winnemem Wintu tribe. All three species are found within a range of about 330 square miles in the vicinity of Shasta Lake.
These 4-inch-long, dark reddish-brown salamanders, mottled with grayish green and tan specks, have webbed toes that allow them to climb sheer, slippery rock surfaces. Their restricted range, coupled with ongoing threats of habitat destruction and degradation, leaves them extremely vulnerable to extinction.
Known to be extremely uncommon across their limited range, these rare salamanders lay and brood their eggs in moist caves during the summer and crawl out into the open on rainy nights at other times of year.
Many key salamander habitats were lost when they were submerged in Shasta Lake, after the construction of Shasta Dam. They continue to be threatened by proposals to raise Lake Shasta, which would further flood hundreds of acres of salamander habitat, as well as by mining, timber management and human recreational activities.
“I hope that this new information will lead the Fish and Wildlife Service to prioritize protections for these unique salamanders,” said Loda. “With a near-perfect record at saving species from extinction, the Endangered Species Act is the best hope for saving these rare salamanders from extinction.”