Salamanders and Algae Stick Together in Unusual 'Cohabitation'

This story may sound a little risque. It's about co-habitation. Turns out algae actually live in the cells of spotted salamanders. Scientific American describes it as the first known case of co-habitation between algae and vertebrates. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan talks with the lead researcher about this discovery, and goes on a hunt for salamanders.

Read the transcript »Close the Transcript

Transcript

JORDAN: This is The Allegheny Front. I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan. Now for a story that sounds a little risque. It's about co-habitation. Turns out algae actually live in the cells of spotted salamanders. Scientific American describes it as the first known case of co-habitation between algae and vertebrates.

Spotted salamanders live in our region and well beyond, from Nova Scotia down to eastern Texas. And if you head into swampy wooded areas during spring, you might see the greenish orbs of egg sacs that prompted head researcher Ryan Kerney to look more closely inside.

Kerney used newly available advanced microscopes with fluorescent lights to determine that algae was not only collecting outside egg sacs, but living between the embryonic cells, and even within the embryos themselves.

KERNEY: This came as a huge surprise, one that we didn't really believe at first, and had to do a decent amount of more sophisticated imaging techniques as well as rely on molecular biology to verify that we were indeed seeing algae within these tissues.

JORDAN: What's more, algae remains in salamander tissues and is passed on through generations of spotted salamanders, without introducing harmful pathogens to the animals.

Kerney said the researchers didn't conclude exactly why the salamanders and algae stick by each other in this way. But both benefit. The algae increases oxygen available to embryos and the salamanders allow the algae to perpetuate itself through generations.

Kerney hopes that this new discovery inspires a greater appreciation for the species and the woods where the critters live.

KERNEY: We often think that it is from research in the tropics that we come up with our new frontiers in understanding biodiversity. Hopefully this highlights that there are new things to learn from species in our own backyards. The breeding habitats for these spotted salamanders are often the first to get plowed under when developers come and build out from urban sprawl. They tend to breed in vernal pools which can be dumping grounds for people. They represent a tremendous amount of biodiversity in eastern North America.

JORDAN: There are some people who didn't need this new discovery to get psyched about salamanders. Naturalist, writer and former contributor to The Allegheny Front Chuck Staresinic brought his four and six year old daughters out to a little park one recent rainy wet night when conditions were ripe for the annual mating migration of spotted salamanders.