Suffocating Salamanders

Your translucent skin

Gasps gently for breath

In the Land of the Noonday Sun;

A mountainous vista

Unexpectedly replaced

With Ziploc bags and

Moist paper towels

As you travel to

Transparent incubators

To be fed a diet of

Crickets,

Humidity,

And rising temperatures.

 

Beneath a harsh and

Artificial sun

Thermal cues subliminally shift

Subdermal networks

To rebuild broken vessels,

Replenishing moisture

That breathes new life

Into your acclimatised

Enclosure.

 

Genetic sampling begins

To unpeel the

Secrets of your

Self-sacrifice,

Revealing the limitations

Of your plasticity in the

Blistering face

Of warming skies.

This complex sequencing

Extracting a simple truth:

That if we cannot regenerate

A way of living then

We will surely suffocate;

Hung in the heat

Like withered husks

Of fragile skin.

The Southern Gray-cheeked Salamander (Image Credit: John P Clare; CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that salamanders may harness their regenerative capabilities to protect themselves against climate change.

The Southern Gray-cheeked Salamander (Plethodon metcalfi) is an amphibian without any lungs, breathing instead through their skin and the mucous membrane in their mouth and throat. As such these surfaces must remain moist at all times in order to absorb oxygen, and if they dry out the salamander will die. Researchers have now found that these salamanders mainly rely on temperature (rather than humidity) to anticipate changes in their environment, harnessing their unique ability to regenerate parts of their body in order to rapidly minimize the impact of hot temperatures and stop their skin from drying out.

By conducting an analysis of tissue samples with 132 salamanders from the Balsam Mountain Range in the Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina, the researchers found that as temperatures increased, the salamanders were able to break down and subsequently rebuild the blood vessel networks in their skin, suggesting that they regulate water loss by regenerating these networks. This process is an example of phenotypic plasticity, i.e. an environmentally-induced change to an animal’s appearance, and this research provides important insight into how changes in temperature can prompt such behaviours, helping to inform how salamanders (and other animals) will adapt to an ever-warming climate.

An audio version of this poem can be heard here:

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