Call it the Case of the Missing Salamanders.
Between 250 and 300 endangered salamanders disappeared from the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center during the Thanksgiving holiday, baffling biologists and leaving them scrambling to replace backup populations kept on hand in case of a die-off in the wild. The facility didn’t house any of Austin’s famous Barton Springs salamanders, but researchers in Austin, where a small population lives in captivity, say they’re now on heightened alert.
The missing stock included mostly Texas blind salamanders, pale, 3- to 4-inch amphibians with frilly gills and the ability to regenerate lost limbs, but several San Marcos salamanders vanished as well, according to a report by the San Marcos Police Department. It valued the loss at $15,000.
No one knows yet why the salamanders disappeared, but some have speculated that thieves stole them to sell on the black market. Others wonder if a predator at the 120-acre campus just off of Interstate 35 on McCarty Lane somehow broke into the building, took the lids off the salamanders’ covered tanks and ate them, leaving no trace.
So far, details on the heist — or feast — remain scant. The center’s staff reported the incident to police at 9:35 a.m. Nov. 25. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now working with local authorities to investigate.
“Given that it’s an ongoing investigation, we don’t have additional information to share at this time,” said Lesli Gray, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman.
The San Marcos facility opened in 1978. With the advent of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, a regional partnership to help protect the habitat for several endangered species, it began housing small populations of the two salamanders, both listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The Texas blind salamander spends its entire life underwater, within the karst honeycomb of the Edwards Aquifer, and scientists say they may be of value in gauging water quality changes. The San Marcos center held about 300 salamanders — 130 collected from the wild, the rest raised in the lab. Not all the salamanders disappeared.
“We still have (at least some of) all the species we originally had (at the) station,” said center director Ken Ostrand. “But our numbers have been reduced because of that incident.”
Staff members at the facility say the disappearance leaves the salamander population vulnerable. The Texas blind salamander is believed to live only in a roughly 25-square-mile swath of the aquifer beneath San Marcos.
“It’s very heartbreaking for me,” Ostrand said. “Nothing like this has ever happened here before. We are concerned; we’re very concerned. We’ve gone through several measures to increase security.”
Ostrand said he doesn’t understand why anyone would want the salamanders — or other wild animals that get caught up in black market trade. “Why would someone want tiger penis? Why would someone want shark fin? I don’t know,” Ostrand said.
Ostrand says it’s taken years to learn how to keep the salamanders alive in captivity. Now crews are preparing to restock the salamanders that vanished by placing nets over freshwater spring openings. When it rains, the water flow will force some of them out of their underground labyrinth. The current high water levels in the Edwards Aquifer make the collections easier now than during periods of drought.
“I’m very optimistic that we will rebound and everything will be OK as we move forward,” Ostrand said. “I’m not saying this scenario is good, but, if it had to happen, better for it to happen when there’s a lot of water in the habitat.”
Additionally, plans were in place before the disappearance to establish a second backup population of the salamanders held in San Marcos at the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery. That will take place starting Jan. 1, Ostrand said.
Repercussions of the San Marcos disappearance are being felt here in Austin. Nathan Bendik, a senior environmental scientist for the city of Austin Watershed Protection Department, says the disappearance has been a hot topic of conversation around the water cooler.
“It’s kind of perplexing to us why this would happen,” he said. “There are certain animals you hear about people having illegally, but salamanders are not one that would pop into my mind. It’s very odd.”
The city of Austin maintains its own captive salamander population, holding about 500 Barton Springs and Austin blind salamanders in reserve in case something happens to the salamanders in the wild.
“If there was a chemical spill or sewer pipe busted, it would reach Barton Springs rather quickly,” Bendik said. “There’s the potential for some catastrophe wiping out a large proportion of them.”
That’s why staffers here are paying close attention to the San Marcos disappearance.
“We have a very secure facility right now,” Bendik said. “Staff are on heightened alert for anything out of the ordinary, but we feel confident in our security.”
Asher Price contributed to this report.