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Meet the salamander.

PITY THE POOR SALAMANDERS. Few Latin American animals are as rarely seen or little understood by the general public as salamanders.

Nevertheless, Central and South America are home to more salamander species than any other area of the world, including the Appalachian Mountains of the United States where scientists believe the animals evolved.

In all, some 155 salamander species are found from northern Mexico to central Bolivia and Brazil. That's more than one-third of all salamanders worldwide. Most experts believe many more remain to be discovered. Nearly all Latin American species inhabit the Isthmus of Panama, especially Mexico, with only a few found in South America itself.

Most Latin American salamanders are neither widespread nor common, often inhabiting but a single mountain or mountain top. Whatever their numbers, most are small, live in cool, moist areas and hide by day under leaves, logs or rocks or in underground tunnels. Some, however, live in trees, especially bromeliads, while a few are aquatic.

All salamanders are predators, usually eating small insects. But they also consume such fare as worms, snarls, spiders and small crustaceans. Some even eat other salamanders, including their own kind.

All the tropical Latin American salamanders belong to one family, the plethodontids or lungless salamanders. As their name suggests, these salamanders lack lungs. Instead, they breathe through mucous membranes in their mouths or through their skin. For that reason, the plethodontids usually feed only at night when rain, mist or fog has raised humidity levels.

With their thin bodies and long tails, salamanders are often mistaken for lizards. In fact, they are amphibians, related to frogs and toads. Like other amphibians, salamanders have smooth rather than scaly skin and lay gelatinous rather than shelled eggs.

One problem in identifying Latin American salamanders is their lack of common names. Many are known only by their scientific names.

The name "salamander" itself comes from an Arab-Persian word meaning "lives in fire." Until a few centuries ago, a European legend stated these animals emerged unharmed from flames.

Perhaps the best-known but least-typical Latin American salamander is the axolotl. Derived from an Aztec word meaning "water monster," axolotls are found only in Lake Xochimilco in southern Mexico. There, they spend all their lives in a larval form, complete with external gills and a tadpole-like tail. Despite this juvenile state, axolotls reach sexual maturity and reproduce like other salamanders.

This phenomenon, called neoteny by scientists, is not unique among salamanders. Some tiger salamanders in the United States also retain a larval form as adults, as do some frogs and other animals. If given a thyroid hormone or sometimes when simply kept as pets in aquariums, axolotls will metamorphose into adults.

Moreover, a related Mexican salamander, Ambystoma taylory, which lives in Lake Alchichica near Orizaba, has both neotenic and metamorphosed forms. And, if an axolotl is mated with a yellow-barred tiger salamander, another closely related species, in the laboratory, normal metamorphosis occurs in the hybrid offspring.

A more typical Mexican salamander is Pseudoeurycea belli, which, at 22 centimeters, is one of Latin America's longest and most striking.

Another striking Latin American salamander is Bolitoglossa arborescandens, which is bright olive green with black spots. Bolitoglossa arborescandens is found in trees through most of Panama's rain forest.

Like their North American relatives, a number of Latin American salamanders are cave dwellers. One, Chiropterotriton magnipes, is found only in caves on barren mountain tops. Another, Chiropterotriton chiropterus, is probably the most common cave salamander in Central America.

Another group of Latin American salamanders, the Oedipina, live mostly on the ground in tropical lowlands from southern Mexico to Ecuador. Most possess very long tails, some twice the length of the animal's body. And, like many other salamanders, these animals can shed their tails if attacked by a predator or other salamander.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Cohn, Jeffrey P.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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