Lockport grad discovers new salamander species
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org April 27, 2014 9:20PM
Michael Steffen, a Lockport High School graduate, discovered this new species of salamander while doing research in Arkansas. | Supplied photo
Updated: May 29, 2014 6:11AM
Michael Steffen thought he screwed up. But it turns out the 2005 graduate of Lockport Township High School accidentally made a unique discovery, one of the biggest in the world of salamanders in 70 years.
Officially, it is the discovery of Eurycea subfluvicola, a paedomorphic plethodontid from the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. More simply, it’s called the Ouachita Streambed Salamander. It’s only three inches long but its discovery is rocking parts of the scientific world, with news of the new species being published in numerous journals and by National Geographic.
Steffen, who is pursuing a doctorate in biology at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, scooped it up while collecting a different but related species, the many-ribbed salamander, Eurycea multiplicata, at Lake Catherine State Park in the Ouachita Mountains.
He was doing research in collaboration with Kelly Irwin, of the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission.
The salamanders he gathered on May 23, 2011, in a stream near Hot Springs, Ark. — both adults and larvae — all appeared to be the same. But his genetic tests indicated that out of 200 specimens he brought back to the lab, there was one that was different — quite different.
Steffen, who did his master’s thesis on the genetics of the many-ribbed salamander and is working on his doctoral thesis on the evolution of the salamander, figured he might have mislabeled it.
“I thought it was an anomaly,” the 27-year-old scientist said. “It was really different than anything I had seen. I knew I had something. We collected 200 specimens that day and only one was really different. That was kind of weird.”
Although excited, Steffen said he was “still skeptical” and set out to find more such salamanders and more proof of its existence. It was a process that took two years to confirm.
He returned to the original site and other streams in the area and searched several times in 2011 and 2012. It was not until February 2013 that additional specimens were found in a small section of a stream.
Steffen measured the critters from head to tail, compared them to their many-ribbed relative, looked at the DNA, and ran more genetic tests, which revealed that it was a new species of salamander. The Eurycea subfluvicola (meaning “under the stream bed”) had a longer trunk, longer snout, shorter, narrower head, and smaller, depressed eyes, and lacked a distinctive stripe when compared with Eurycea multiplicata, according to Steffen’s research.
All tests confirmed that it was indeed a new species, “the most divergent paedomorphic salamander discovered in over 70 years,” he wrote in his paper.
He estimated that the two species diverged from each other 18 million years ago.
“What makes this one interesting is that it is like a larval salamander; it looks like a juvenile its whole life,” he said. “It looks like the juvenile form of its closest related species, the many-ribbed salamander.”
And that may be why this little amphibian has gone undetected.
Since its numbers appear to be so limited, Steffen said, “It will need some protection” through conservation efforts.
“After two years of searching for it ... then I got really excited,” he said.
Steffen earlier this month co-published an article on his discovery in the scientific journal Zootaxa. To read it, visit www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2014/f/zt03786p442.pdf.
It is definitely a highlight of his budding career as a scientist.
“Finding a new species is like a dream. I thought I would make a discovery like this in someplace remote. And this was just a few hours away,” Steffen said. “It is easier to find something like this in South and Central America, but it’s rare in North America.”
His father, Rick Steffen, said his son always was interested in reptiles and amphibians and still has a few pets at his Lockport home, including snakes, geckos, dart frogs and a bearded dragon.
“He is a little passionate about it,” Rick said of his son’s interest in these creatures. “He is doing exactly what he loves.”
Mike didn’t really get interested in salamanders until he attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
“I always thought they were cool,” the younger Steffen said.
His next task is to find more Eurycea subfluvicola.
“Our job is to make sure they are doing all right. We will do more survey work,” he said. That includes “environmental DNA” work in which they will go to different streams, get water samples and look for remnants of the salamander’s DNA in it. And if necessary, they will help the ones they have collected reproduce so the species can continue to live in the Ouachita Mountains.
As for the original Ouachita Streambed Salamander he discovered, it is residing at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California-Berkeley.