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Endangered Texas Blind Salamanders Get a Helping Hand

June 16, 2005

The highly endangered Texas blind salamander spends its life in complete darkness underground in the water-filled limestone caves of the Edwards Aquifer near San Marcos -- unless it gets too close to a natural spring. Then the force of the spring shoots the salamander out of the groundwater and into the river where it often becomes catfish food.

A new pipe in San Marcos Springs (formerly Aquarena Springs) in the San Marcos River is going to change all that. Instead of losing these rare salamanders to hungry fish, they will be caught in a net at the end of the pipe. The aquifer under Diversion Springs holds the only known natural population of the Texas blind salamander. Since the salamander spends its life in complete darkness, nature has decided it does not need any eyes. Instead this subterranean salamander has two black dots where others would have eyes. Its skin is white and translucent. The captured salamanders will begin a new life as part of a breeding population at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's San Marcos National Fish Hatchery and Technology Center. The Center is the only facility that rears Texas blind salamanders to augment the natural, but very limited, population.

Owners of the former Aquarena Springs amusement park, which was in operation from the 1940's through the 1980's, installed the original pipe to divert water to provide its visitors with a clear view of the park's underwater entertainment (which featured mermaid shows and a swimming pig). "As I understand it, they put that diving bell and pipe over the spring to divert water into the show area to keep it clear. By piping springflow in, they kept visibility high," explains Dr. Glenn Longley of Texas State University's Edwards Aquifer Research and Data Center. This 'diversion' of water is the source of the spring's and the pipe's names, Diversion Springs/Diversion Pipe.

San Marcos Springs is now owned by the Texas State University at San Marcos and the attention is on the natural system and incredible endangered species that are found there. Dr. Longley has been netting Texas blind salamanders from the Diversion Pipe since the late seventies. Up until three years ago, the Service was able to rely on this collection to sustain the captive breeding population which is held at the San Marcos National Fish Hatchery and Technology Center.

"The last few years we haven't seen any salamanders and suspect they are literally falling through the cracks," said Bob Pine, USFWS Supervisor of the Austin Ecological Services office.

Diversion Pipe, which is estimated to be at least 50 years old, has fallen into disrepair and salamanders are being lost through rusted holes in the pipe and not making their way to the net.

After years with no salamander sightings, the Service starting looking to local experts for help. Pine explained, "One of my biologists mentioned the old rusty pipe in a meeting and immediately several partners jumped in to make this happen."

The pipe will be trucked from San Antonio to San Marcos Springs on Friday, June 17 to replace the worn Diversion Pipe.

Partners from across the Edwards Aquifer region including Texas State University, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, and the Service are all contributing to replace the pipe, but the work will be done by a five-person crew from American Underwater Services. The crew (which will include a high definition camera operator from The Discovery Channel) expects to spend two days removing the old pipe and three days installing the new one.

"We anticipate that the replacement of this pipe will allow us to bring our captive population of Texas blind salamanders back to the levels recommended for the preservation of the species' genetic diversity and recovery," said Carrie Thompson, Service Biologist. "We still have a lot to learn from these little guys and we are all looking forward to seeing these critters come out of Diversion Springs again!"


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