In this fourth installment of the human stories behind herpetological research, we hear the story behind a recent publication in SSAR’s Herpetological Review. The citation for that article is as follows:
Hutton, J.M., Price, S.J., and Richter, S.C. 2018. Diet of the Black Mountain Salamander (Desmognathus welteri) in southeastern Kentucky. Herpetological Review 49(1): 12-19.
SSAR members can access the article here. Below is a first-hand account from the lead author, Jake Hutton.
During my last year as an undergraduate student, I happened across some salamander diet literature. I was fascinated and immediately became consumed by the broader ecological impacts of this type of research. However, I soon found that there were very few salamander diet studies that didn’t sacrifice the entire animal just to obtain its stomach contents. So, with the support of one of my advisors, Dr. Bill Ensign (who had some partial experience with fish dietary studies back in the 80’s), I decided to further explore this field of research. We combed through the literature until we found consistent and successful techniques for a non-lethal salamander diet technique, collectively called “gastric lavage”, which is definitely the most awesome way of saying a way to make something throw up.
With my kit of mini-vomit-inducing materials and a slightly-more-than-vague understanding of the ethical technique, I took to the field to find some guinea-salamanders. After a few rocks, I spotted what would be my first lavaged salamander, a lovely spotted dusky salamander (Desmognathus conanti). I anxiously took out my container and added the estimated amount of Orajel and mixed in the water to create the most wonderful pre-throw up smell, at least in my opinion. After I had created the “jeloution”, the salamander just sat staring up at me, as if saying, let’s get some diet data, but please don’t kill me. Knowing the stakes, I placed it into the solution and waited nervously. After a few minutes it went limp and was unresponsive to my frightened verbal calls and nudges. The salamander was either dead or properly anesthetized. I had to know which one, but first I had some experimenting to do. So I snakingly, but accurately, inserted my incredibly tiny tubing down the esophagus and inserted the water-filled syringe into it. I took a breath, then pressed my thumb down on the syringe expecting to see an explosion or something else equally horrible. Instead, a massive earth worm nearly flew out of its’ mouth! To end the perfect first salamander lavage experience, my science-loving salamander friend began moving in the recovery water bath after just a few minutes. While waiting for it to fully recover, we had a lovely conversation about diet composition and the endless possibilities of using this technique to answer incredibly important questions about the potential influence of salamanders on the ecosystem.
Fast-forward to hundreds of non-lethally stomach flushed salamanders and salamander conversations later (0% mortality or actual talking from the salamanders). I was working as a field technician on a salamander project in the Stephen Richter Lab (Eastern Kentucky University) for J. Alex Baecher’s thesis in southeastern Kentucky. Between sampling periods, I would go out and collect as much diet data as I could, perfecting the technique as well as the handling and recovery times. I also look this chance to learn how to identify the prey that were collected from the salamanders. Each diet sample became like an exciting murder mystery, minus the murder but with alike with clues, patterns, and a magnifying glass, well an Accu-Scope 3075.
I was collecting data from multiple streams but at one stream in-between two incredibly creepy houses, there was a robust population of Black Mountain Salamanders (Desmognathus welteri). I’m sure other salafinders agree, but these are by far the most difficult semi-aquatic salamanders I’ve had the pleasure of attempting to catch. When this D. welteri diet study started, I would be lucky to have a 20% catch rate per sampling. Despite the creepy houses and black bear encounters, I kept at it and began to know exactly which rock they would be under and where to put my net. We eventually captured enough individuals for a solid representative study of the previously unknown adult Kentucky and larval diet of this incredible salamander.
I went on to use this technique for my master’s thesis at the University of Kentucky (Steve Price Lab, follow us @PriceHerpLab!) examining the effects of surface mining on stream salamanders in southeastern Kentucky. Although sometimes it can be physically and mentally demanding to make a bunch of salamanders throw up and then have to identify it, I don’t regret a single lavage. With our incredible amount of diet data, we hope to continue answering questions about the ecologies and importance of these amazing animals to stream and terrestrial systems. I’m incredibly lucky to have had nothing but support from my advisors, mentors, and PI’s. I only hope others will continue to make salamanders throw up (without killing them), so that we can fill the gaps in our knowledge of these magnificent, slimy, and evasive creatures.
Jake M Hutton
University of Kentucky
Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Lexington, Kentucky 40546, USA