Unlike the workhorse, the milking cow, or the honey bee, the damp and humble salamander hardly strikes the average animal enthusiast as a species crucial to human existence. And compared to say, the grizzly bear, its status as a top predator is less than awe-inspiring. But what the salamander lacks in charm it makes up for in a penchant to live alone underground forever – and as a consequence, it’s doing us a big favor.
According to a study published in Ecosphere by scientists Hartwell H. Welsh and Michael L. Best, the salamander is a crucial driver of the carbon cycle in the forest ecosystem. By eating shredding invertebrates, ants and larvae that make a living by ripping up the plants around them, salamanders are giving the trees a chance to do what they do best: decompose. When an ant eats a deciduous leaf, the carbon it contains is released into the atmosphere. If it can fall to the ground without being shredded, however, it goes through humification: it’s trapped beneath other leaves and the carbon in it is captured until it can be absorbed by the soil.
Welsh and Best set up an experiment to measure salamander presence in plots in northwestern California, and to calculate the amount of carbon sent back into the soil if their density of salamanders was range-wide across the ecosystem. What they found was that simply by eating carbon-releasing insects, salamanders could save an estimated 72.3 metric tons of carbon a year from being released into the atmosphere.
But this isn’t just confined to the Sunshine State: here in Northfield, this process is happening under our feet. The tiger salamander is our resident representative to this amphibian community, and though it is small and socially rather clammy, it just goes to show that it’s not size which matters when it comes to sequestration. We couldn’t be happier to send it some thanks and congratulations - just because you breathe through your skin doesn’t mean you have to hang your head.