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Uncovering the Hidden Reproductive Lives of Salamanders

April 22, 2013

For Earth Day, IMLS presents blogs by two scientists who are working on an IMLS-funded project to save salamanders that are in danger of extinction worldwide.

By Ruth Marcec
PhD Student, Mississippi State University

When I graduated veterinary school one year ago and told my friends I was going on for an additional graduate degree in reproductive physiology and conservation of salamanders,  they thought I was insane. But since I started as a graduate assistant with the Memphis Zoo and Mississippi State University, I could not be happier. I have always loved salamanders, and having the opportunity to bring more salamanders into the world was an opportunity I just could not pass up. Saving salamanders is the greatest job there is.

Ruth ultrasound sexing a tiger salamander in the laboratory. It is a male.

You may be wondering, “Why salamanders? Aren’t those the slimy little things you find under logs?” Well… yes. However, if things keep moving in the direction they are headed, you won’t be able to find salamanders under logs anymore. Salamanders are crucial to a healthy ecosystem, and if they disappear, the environment will be in big trouble. You can find out more about salamander declines and conservation at the link to the Memphis Zoo salamander conservation webpage below.

In our laboratory, I work mainly with the “boys,” which means I get to look at lots and lots of sperm. I count sperm, I look at the movement of sperm, I try to get inactive sperm to move, and I look at the shapes of sperm. I also try to get the male salamanders to produce as much sperm as possible. After a production period, they get a nice long month of rest and they get extra helpings of tasty worms as treats for all their hard work. I wish I were as well rewarded as they are!

Over the past year, I have experienced new and exciting opportunities. I have been able to try out rarely used techniques, such as identifying the sex of amphibians using ultrasound. I also had the amazing opportunity to work with Chinese giant salamanders (in China), which was a lifelong dream. I look forward to the new techniques I will get to try and the different species I will get to work with as time goes on.

So far, we have been making good progress toward our goals of developing captive breeding protocols for salamanders. We are thrilled to be working with these animals and can’t wait to keep moving forward!

About The Author:
Ruth Marcec graduated with her DVM from the University of Illinois in 2012. In veterinary school she focused on zoo and wildlife medicine and research with the goal of someday being a salamander veterinarian. She now is a graduate assistant working for her PhD with the Memphis Zoo and Mississippi State University in Salamander Reproductive Physiology and Conservation.

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