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New Mexico

In Search of Salamanders

Locating a salamander in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains is a lot like trying to find a needle in a haystack—even more difficult when it’s raining.

Undaunted, a study team including Conservancy scientists, local salamander experts, and Jemez Pueblo foresters and students spent several days this summer searching under rocks and small crevices for the tiny amphibians.

Why? Jemez Mountains salamanders, a species found nowhere else in the world, are in rapid decline.

A warmer, drier climate in New Mexico has impacted the salamanders’ habitat—threatening their long-term survival.

The salamander study is part of the Conservancy’s Southwest Climate Change Initiative, an effort to develop adaptation strategies that make the Jemez Mountains healthier and more resilient for salamanders, other animals and plants, and humans, too.

Nature.org talked with Darwin Cajero, 31, a Jemez Pueblo tribal member and student in natural resource management at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque about what it’s like to catch salamanders in the rain.
We need to help our forests get back on their feet. It’s important for everything—our medicine, our animals and our people.

-Darwin Cajero, Jemez Pueblo Student

Nature.org:

First of all, why look for salamanders when it’s raining?

Darwin:

Salamanders only come out when it’s wet…otherwise they bury themselves in the ground. They don’t have lungs, so they need to have moist conditions so they can breathe through their skin.

Nature.org:

What happens when you find a salamander?

Darwin:

When you find a Jemez Mountains salamander, you have to take precautions. We have to follow a specific protocol and do our analysis in as short an amount of time possible. Our objective is to accurately record as much information as possible and to reduce the stress on the salamander.

We put the salamander in a plastic bag with water to protect it. We then measure it and swab its skin to test for disease. We also enter the location where the salamander was found in our GPS unit before putting it back under the rock, or rotten log where we found it.

You have to clean your shoes and tools—everything—before and after the research. There is a serious disease that is killing many amphibians (frogs, toads and salamanders) around the world. It is called chytrid fungus. We know we have it in some places in the Jemez Mountains, so we disinfect our hands and equipment to make sure we aren’t accidently moving the fungus around.

Nature.org:

How did you become involved in the Jemez Mountains salamander project?

Darwin:

This summer, I had an internship with the Jemez Pueblo Natural Resources Department. I did water collecting, testing for mercury in the air, a salt cedar project pond project and bear trapping. The salamander research was also part of my internship.

Nature.org:

Is this all part of a future career path for you?

Darwin:

Yes, I want to work in natural resources and wildlife management for the Jemez Pueblo.

I grew up right on the Pueblo. I started construction when I finished high school and was in the construction world for about 10 years. I then decided to put myself back in school because I’d rather be working in an environment where I enjoy going to work.

I’m now double majoring in degrees for an Associate in Natural Resources and Geospatial Information Systems (GIS)/Geographical Information Technologies (GIT). I’d like to help the tribe map out our natural resources.

Nature.org:

What is your hope for the future of the Jemez Mountains?

Darwin:

We need to protect our land and wildlife and plants and so forth. We need to help our forests get back on their feet. It’s important for everything—our medicine, our animals and our people.

For me, I just enjoy getting out there and finding ways to keep our land clean and healthy.


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