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Old 26th April 2008   #1
Wes von Papinešu
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Default GA Press: Answers to amphibian mystery may slither around Ga.

ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION (Georgia) 26 April 08 Answers to amphibian mystery may slither around Ga. - Fungus killing creatures worldwide, but North Georgia salamanders seem immune (Mark Davis)
Dillard: The green folds of Georgia's mountains may hold a secret that scientists around the world want to know:
Why do salamanders in its creeks and bogs appear impervious to a fungus that is killing amphibians all over the world?
The Atlanta Botanical Garden's Robert Hill is trying to find out the only way he knows ó on his knees, in the muck and goo. He catches salamanders.
"Oh, here's one!" Hill squatted inches above a nameless creek Wednesday on a Rabun County ridge in the northeastern corner of the state. He slid his hand into the swirling murk and pulled out a little brown something. It was mostly tail and all thrash, 4 inches of frantic life. Hill slid it into a plastic baggie sloshing with water and stared for a moment at the creature. The salamander stared back, pressing bulbous eyes against the plastic like a kid eyeballing candy in a jar.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what it is," said Hill, who planned to take a sample of the slime on its skin for scientific analysis before releasing the salamander. "It's kind of cool, though."
Hill returned to the hunt, his thick-rubber boots sliding on rounded rocks. He paused over a stone the size of a casserole dish. Hill reached into a pile of wet leaves under it and pulled out a 2-inch wiggler the color of coffee.
"Ocoee salamander," he said. "They're everywhere."
Hill, 28, knows. He's been prowling the waterways of North Georgia for the botanical garden since last year, grabbing slippery slitherers in the name of science. The region's hills and ridges contain more than 30 species ó more salamanders than just about anywhere. The mountains, he said, are "an adaptive radiation point," which is a scientist's way of saying the varying species practically originated here and spread outward. When dinosaurs roamed the Earth, said Hill, salamanders crouched under rocks and watched them pass.
"Here," said Hill. He held a third salamander, another Ocoee. It was a study in contrasts ó chestnut brown, with dark-gold spots. "Really pretty," Hill murmured.
What is happening elsewhere to the world's amphibians is anything but pretty. The plight facing frogs and other amphibians is so dire that an international consortium last year declared 2008 the Year of the Frog.
The chytrid fungus, identified about 70 years ago in Africa, has swept through some amphibian species in Central and South America like a fire through straw. The fungus impedes the ability of amphibians' skin to absorb water and oxygen. It has left some species' hold on life so tenuous that the botanical garden sends scientists overseas to retrieve specimens before they become extinct in the wild.
Amphibian ARK, composed of scientists from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and members of the World Conservation Union, is supporting chytrid research. If no one does, said its director, frogs may fall silent in parts of the world.
"If we can figure out why the species that aren't dying are surviving, maybe we can apply that knowledge to the species that are dying out," said biologist Kevin Zippel, who heads the nonprofit association.
What Hill is doing in North Georgia, he said, "is among the most important research going on right now."
The task is simple: collect salamanders, run a Q-Tip over each, getting a swab of slime. Note the time and location of each sample.
The botanical garden sends the samples, packed individually, to a scientist at N.C. State University. He analyzes the swabs and determines which creatures may have it.
With that information, said Hill, scientists can pinpoint where the fungus has shown up in the Georgia hills. They also can determine which species may have the fungus, and if they appear resistant to it. Repeat trips will indicate whether the salamanders are flourishing or succumbing to the fungus.
In time, say scientists, such findings may have a global impact. What's collected from the belly skin of a Blue Ridge two-line salamander, for example, might save a golden frog in Panama.
For Hill, that means making frequent trips to the hills to turn over rocks in chilled streams. It means bumping into the occasional assassin bug, perhaps better known by its well-deserved nickname ó "stink bug." It means rediscovering why crayfish aren't pleasant.
"You get pinched sometimes," he said.
Hill hovered over a moss-fuzzed rock, then peeled away the green covering. Two tails vanished in the wet dirt.
"Got one of them."
The sun winked and rose over the ridge. Hill worked a 25-foot length of creek like an angler, taking a few steps before pausing at a promising spot. Salamandering, he says, is like fishing. "You throw back the little ones and keep the ones you can use."
Some Georgia salamanders, such as Desmognathus wrighti, the appropriately named pygmy salamander, are barely inches long. On the other end of the spectrum is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, which easily exceeds 2 feet. It also has an apt name: Hellbender.
Hill bent and dug into a pile of moss. Something the color of dark honey zipped past. It was fast, but Hill was faster. He cradled a 4-inch salamander, its markings as distinct as cloisonne jewelry. A two-line or three-line salamander? Hill frowned. He'd have to check his field guide.
The salamander wriggled its honey-hued head between Hill's thumb and index finger, trying to escape.
"It's beautiful," he said. "When you say 'beautiful amphibian,' people always think about frogs in South America. They don't realize that we have these things right here. And they're just as pretty."
His take for the day? Thirty-two salamanders, comprising five species ó Ocoee, black belly, two-line, spring, and spotted dusky salamanders. He took a swab from each, photographed them, then returned the creatures to their cold home. He didn't finish until the sun was beginning to slide past the western ridges of Rabun County.
"That's a pretty good day," Hill said.
He'll go back this summer, seeking a secret in Georgia's muck and goo.

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