Tucked behind the San Antonio Zoo, an old storage facility converted into a research and rehabilitation lab houses several small, endangered cave-dwelling species. The five-person team at the Center for Conservation and Research at the San Antonio Zoo works to repopulate these species.
The team includes vice president Danté Fenolio, center director Andy Gluesenkamp, center manager Bekky Muscher-Hodges, senior conservation technician Kamryn Richard, and conservation technician Ariana Duffey.
They currently focus on two species: the reticulated flatwoods salamander and the Georgia blind salamander, both of which dwell in the subterranean waters of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The team is attempting to breed them and repopulate them in their ecosystems.
Last Monday, the center announced it conducted the first successful breeding of the Georgia blind salamander in captivity. Through their work with these two species, the center hopes to create a guide for keeping and breeding these endangered groundwater animals so that other conservation centers can do similar work.
“If you look at a biological community anywhere and think about it as a giant spider web, every species is a thread,” Fenolio said. “If you’re sitting there with scissors and you start clipping out threads, how many threads do you have to go through until the entire web collapses? It’s really not that many. You won’t be able to predict the ripple effect that taking out even a few of these species might have on the rest of the web.”
The center also is breeding and rehabilitating species like the Texas horned lizard and Mexican blind catfish. These may not be animals the public typically considers worth saving, but Fenolio said they are just as important and endangered as the “poster animals” of conservation efforts.
“The truth is that the vast majority of species that really need our help aren’t those animals that you would see on a postage stamp,” Fenolio said. “The vast majority of species that need our help are animals that most people might consider undesirable, like venomous snakes, arachnids and insects.”
The center pays special attention to species that often are overlooked or sidelined by other conservation efforts because they don’t raise money. The San Antonio Zoo funds the center’s effort to repopulate the flatwoods salamander, but private donations and grants fund the other rehabilitation and repopulation efforts at the center.
The team comes in early in the morning to check on the animals. They feed the species specially cultivated food, maintain their terrariums to species-specific conditions, and monitor their health through various tests. Richards said it can be labor intensive, but the team’s diverse expertise and shared goals keeps it all functioning.
“Part of what makes [the team] work is that we are in a place where all of our passions are aligned and there are people who all care deeply about what we are doing,” Richard said. “It motivates me to work harder regardless of the conditions because we all have that same goal of helping all these animals.”
The center must recreate very specific living conditions for the animals they care for, ranging from the deserts of West Texas to Florida’s aquifer caves. In the case of the salamanders, little is known about what they eat or their behaviors because they spend most of their lives in these caves, hidden from the view of researchers. These unknown factors can make caring for these animals especially challenging.
Early in the breeding program, the center found that several of the salamanders’ skin would lose its silvery spotted pattern, turn black, dry out and then the salamander would die. In their search for a cause, they saw another lab faced a similar problem with their frog population and feeding the frogs more food rich in vitamin A seemed to fix the problem. The team devised a method of feeding worms vitamin A and then feeding the worms to the salamanders.
Despite these challenges, the team members said that they are making progress to keep the animals, and ultimately their ecosystems, alive.
“When you’re the one caring for a group of critically endangered animals and not everything makes it, it can be devastating” Muscher-Hodges said. “But the progress that we’ve made is very significant. It’s a good feeling to know that we are improving constantly and knowing that these guys are alive because of what we’ve all done.”