Friday, 23 June 2017

Three new chameleon species discovered from Democratic Republic of the Congo - via Herp Digest

PTI, 6/20/17, Washington, D.C. Scientists have identified three new species of chameleons, after studying a trio of reptiles earlier thought to belong to the same species.

The specimens were collected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 2009 and 2014.

Researchers from University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) were able to describe the three new chameleon species after carefully analysing geographical, morphological, and DNA data.

The reptile trio, historically thought to be a single species, was found in different parts of the Albertine Rift in Central Africa.

“We had this really nice dataset with samples collected all throughout the range of a particular species which meant we could really figure out its true diversity,” said Daniel Hughes from UTEP.

“We took to the next step and ultimately described three new species,” Hughes said.

Two of the chameleons were named Rugege Highlands Forest Chameleon (Kinyongia rugegensis) and Itombwe Forest Chameleon (Kinyongia itombwensis) – after the mountain ranges in which they were found.

The third chameleon, Tolley’s Forest Chameleon (Kinyongia tolleyae), was named after herpetologist Krystal Tolley, principal scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, who has contributed significantly to chameleon research.

There are 206 described species of chameleons on the planet and Hughes hopes to continue finding many more.

The research was published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Snake Fungal Disease Identified in Wild British Snakes for First Time Amongst European snake populations - via Herp Digest

USGS Press Release, 6/19/17

Europe’s wild snakes could face a growing threat from a fungal skin disease that has contributed to wild snake deaths in North America, according to an international collaborative study, led by conservation charity Zoological Society of London alongside partners including the U.S. Geological Survey. The new study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, snake fungal disease, or SFD, can lead to symptoms including skin lesions, scabs and crusty scales, which can contribute to the death of the infected animal in some cases. SFD was first recognized in wild snakes in eastern North America around a decade ago. Prior to this study, the only wild populations found to be affected had been those in the central and eastern United States.

Now, an analysis of samples collected from wild snakes in the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic between 2010-2016 confirmed the presence of the pathogen and SFD in Europe for the first time. While the disease poses no known risk to humans or livestock, scientists are calling for further research to understand the full significance of SFD to Europe’s snake populations. 

Lead author and wildlife veterinarian Dr. Lydia Franklinos said: “Our team at ZSL found evidence of SFD in grass snakes from the U.K. and a single dice snake from the Czech Republic. The analysis found that the fungus strains from Europe are different to those previously identified in North America – suggesting that rather than being introduced across the Atlantic, or vice versa, the disease could have been present below the radar in European snakes for some time.”

“Of all vertebrate wildlife, we probably know least about health conditions that affect terrestrial reptiles such as snakes, so this study represents an important milestone and one that will hopefully encourage greater focus in understanding the threats facing these animals,” Franklinos continued.

Dr. Jeffrey Lorch, a microbiologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the study’s co-author, said: “The fungus that causes SFD is already known to occur across the eastern half of the U.S. and infect over 20 species of snakes. Comparing how SFD affects wild snakes on different continents may help us pinpoint the factors causing the disease to emerge and help managers identify mitigation strategies.”

The increasing emergence of deadly fungal pathogens – including white-nose syndrome in bats, chytridiomycosis (chytrid) in amphibians and SFD in snakes – is of grave concern to wildlife disease experts worldwide. To learn more about ZSL’s work on wildlife health, including citizen science opportunities, please visit:

Poachers are now selling the penis of endangered lizards as Indian tantric root Tests carried out in labs have found evidence that suggest customers are being duped in the name of Hatha Jodi root. - via Herp Digest by Monalisa Das, 6/20/17 
Go to for photos of these “roots”

A group of scientists and investigators from India and the UK have found that Monitor Lizard Hemipenis or the male sexual organs of monitor lizards are being sold online as Hatha Jodi, a tantric root that is believed to bring wealth and happiness.

Unsuspecting customers, mostly from the Asian diaspora, have been buying lizard genitalia that resemble a root, via major online retailers such as Amazon, Alibab and Ebay, World Animal Protection (WAP) said in a statement.
WAP has been reaching out to the e-commerce markets requesting them to take down the products from their sites.

"We were shocked at the sheer audacity and scale of this illegal wildlife trade. Deceitful dealers claiming to sell holy plant root labelled as 'atha Jodi', are in fact peddling dried lizard penis to their unwitting customers. These illegal items are readily available in the UK and USA with potential street value of £50,000 GBP (Great Britain pound)'," Gajender K Sharma, India Country Director at WAP, said.

The animal welfare organisation stated that these lizards are illegally poached from forests and killed cruelly before their genitals are removed for use as "Hatha Jodi". At times, the animals are even alive when the process of removing their organs begin.

The Hatha Jodi, often considered holy, is a rare plant species found in remote areas of Nepal and Central India, and used in traditional practices.

Tests carried out in labs in Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) have found evidence that suggest customers are being duped in the name of Hatha Jodi root.

Dr David Megson of the MMU said, "Given the photos being advertised online, we needed to get into the laboratory to confirm our suspicions that that these dried 'plant roots' were in fact derived from Indian monitor lizards. However, the plot thickened even further when tests revealed that some of these items are actually plastic mouldings of monitor lizard genitalia.”

All monitor lizards fall under Schedule I and any trade involving the reptile or its body parts is a national offence under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Both the Bengal and Yellow Monitor lizards are also listed under Appendix I of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) - the highest level of international legal protection that can be afforded and that prohibits commercial trade.

There are over 70 species of monitor lizards around the world and four of them are specifically found in India namely Bengal Monitor, Water Monitor, Yellow Monitor and Desert Monitor lizards.

"Most of the monitor lizards have been extensively exploited for a long period of time for their skin and meat and by those who want to keep them as pets. Now what we are getting to see is that after poachers sell the skin and flesh of the reptiles, they have started selling the rest of the body parts of the animal. This is worrisome.Their population is already dwindling due to habitat loss" explained Anirban Chaudhuri, a herpetologist from Kolkata.

In a recent raid carried out by enforcement agencies in Bhubaneswar, 210 Hatha Jodi, including hemipenis from Bengal and Yellow Monitor Lizards, were seized. Similar raids also took place in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The price of these depends on the size and can range between Rs 400 and Rs 4,000.

This species of lizard are sought after by poachers for their tough skin that is used to make products such as bags, drums, etc. Another species found in the desert regions of India - Pine Tail Lizards - are also used for making traditional medicines.

Chaudhuri added that while the practice is not new, the magnitude of the illegal activity has increased substantially. There's a demand, specially in South East Asian countries, and poachers are making use of technology to fulfill it.
"Poachers are now more organised. They use social media to carry out their

Over 150 Asian Giant Softshell Turtles Return to the Wild

Date: June 21, 2017
Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), in collaboration with Cambodia's Fisheries Administration (FiA) and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), released 150 Endangered Asian giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) hatchlings into their natural habitat along the Mekong River.

The hatchlings are part of a community protection program designed to increase the wild population of the species, and had been collected from nests that were guarded by local communities.

The Asian giant softshell turtle is listed on the IUCN Red List as globally Endangered. It was thought extinct in the Cambodian portion of the Mekong River until re-discovery in 2007 in a 48-kilometer stretch of the river between Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces.

"The purpose of this release is to increase the wild population of the Asian giant softshell turtle," said Mr. Sun Yoeung, WCS's Asian Giant Softshell Turtle Conservation Project Coordinator. "As the project pays local people as guardians and rangers, the release will also increase local incomes and encourage the support and involvement of local communities in conserving the species."

The release is part of a project that has been ongoing since 2007, formerly run by Conservation International (CI), and now by WCS in collaboration with the FiA and TSA. The community-based protection program encourages the participation of local communities living in Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces by hiring former nest collectors to search for and protect nests, instead of harvesting the eggs. Since 2007, 329 nests have been protected and 7,709 hatchlings released.

Read more

'Star dust' wasp is a new extinct species named after David Bowie's alter ego

Date: June 22, 2017
Source: Pensoft Publishers

During her study on fossil insects of the order Hymenoptera at China's Capitol Normal University, student Longfeng Li visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, carrying two unidentified wasp specimens that were exceptionally well-preserved in Burmese amber. This type of fossilized tree resin is known for the quality of the fossil specimens which can be preserved inside it. Being 100 million years old, they provide an incredible view into the past.

The subsequent analysis of the specimens revealed that both represent species new to science. Furthermore, one of the wasps showed such amazing similarities to a modern group of wasps that it was placed in a currently existing genus, Archaeoteleia which has long been considered as an ancient lineage. The species are described in a study published in the open access Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

However, Archaeoteleia has changed since the times when the ancient wasp got stuck on fresh tree resin. The authors note that "a novice might not recognize the characters that unite the fossil with extant species." For instance, the modern wasp species of the genus show visibly longer antennal segments and a different number of teeth on the mandible when compared to the fossil. In turn, the description of the new extinct species enhances the knowledge about living species by highlighting anatomical structures shared by all species within the genus.


Scientists work to develop heat-resistant 'cow of the future'

Date: June 23, 2017
Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

University of Florida scientists are working to breed the "cow of the future" by studying the more heat-tolerant Brangus cow -- a cross between an Angus and a Brahman.

Raluca Mateescu, an associate professor in the UF/IFAS department of animal sciences, is part of a team of UF/IFAS researchers that has received a three-year, $733,000 federal grant for this research.

"The grant allows us to track down DNA segments from the two breeds and figure out which regions of the cow's DNA are important to regulate body temperature," Mateescu said.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Wild monkeys use loud calls to assess the relative strength of rivals

June 21, 2017 by Jared Wadley

Gelada males—a close relative to baboons—pay attention to the loud calls of a rival to gain information about his relative fighting ability compared to themselves, a new study indicated.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, Georgia State University and Princeton University found evidence that gelada males decide to escalate contests with their opponents based on their own condition relative to the condition of their opponent.

They appear to do this by using the acoustic quality of the loud calls of their rivals—long-distance vocalizations that carry honest information about the fighting ability of the caller.

There has been much debate on specifically how animals make competitive decisions during contests. Game theoretical models predict that animals should assess an opponent's condition relative to their own condition prior to engaging in combat to avoid costly fights they are unlikely to win, a strategy known as mutual assessment.

Despite the benefits of such mutual comparisons ("I am stronger than him"), remarkably few studies have been able to reject much simpler assessment strategies such as self-assessment ("I am strong and should fight") and opponent-only assessment ("he is strong and so I should not fight").

Researchers say one approach for distinguishing these strategies is to use animal displays (rather than aggressive contests) to examine how animals make informed decisions about rivals.

"Particularly for quality signals that contain honest information on the condition of its bearer, signals used in animal displays offer an ideal situation for examining mutual assessment because they are low cost and allow for experimental manipulation," said Marcela Benítez, a postdoctoral research associate at Georgia State University and the study's lead author.

In geladas, harem-holding "leader" males engage in loud call displays to deter challenges from "bachelor" males, who must compete with leaders to gain reproductive access to females. Supporting a mutual assessment strategy, gelada males responded to loud calls of different quality (in both playback experiments as well as in natural observations) according to attributes of themselves and their opponent.

Read more at: 

Pollinator extinctions alter structure of ecological networks

June 21, 2017 by Carol Clark

The absence of a single dominant bumblebee species from an ecosystem disrupts foraging patterns among a broad range of remaining pollinators in the system—from other bees to butterflies, beetles and more, field experiments show.

Biology Letters published the research, which may have implications for the survival of both rare wild plants and major food crops as many pollinator species are in decline.

"We see an ecological cascade of effects across the whole pollinator community, fundamentally changing the structure of plant-pollinator interaction networks," says Berry Brosi, a biologist at Emory University and lead author of the study. "We can see this shift in who visits which plant even in pollinators that are not closely related to the bumblebee species that we remove from the system."

If a single, dominant species of bumblebee mainly visits an alpine sunflower, for instance, other pollinators—including other species of bumblebees—are less likely to visit alpine sunflowers. If the dominant bumblebee is removed, however, the dynamic changes.

"When the sunflowers became less crowded and more available, a broader range of pollinators chose to visit them," Brosi says.

The field experiments, based in the Colorado Rockies, also showed that the removal of a dominant bumblebee species led to fewer plant species being visited on average. "That was a surprise," Brosi says. "If a nectar resource is abundant and highly rewarding, more types of pollinators will go for it, leaving out some of the rarer plants that some of the other pollinator species normally specialize in."

The findings are important since most flowering plants and food crops need pollinators to produce seeds.

"Basically, for almost every pollinator group that we have good data for, we've seen declines in those pollinators," Brosi says. "The results of our field experiments suggest that losses of pollinator species—at a local population level or on a global, true extinction scale—are likely to have bigger impacts on plant populations than previously predicted by simulation models."

The experiments were done at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte, Colorado. Located at 9,500 feet, the facility's subalpine meadows are too high for honeybees, but they are filled with a variety of bumblebees and other pollinators.

Read more at: 

How many turtles have to die before we stand up to the balloon lobby? New Jersey (USA) - via Herp Digest

Editorial by STAR-LEDGER EDITORIAL BOARD , 6/19/17 

Let's hope our Legislature has the political chops and good sense to ban balloon releases statewide, so we don't find their tattered remains in our wildlife refuges and the mouths of dead sea creatures. 

You'd be surprised at what a challenge this is. After a similar ban died in the state Senate in 1989, thanks to the power of the almighty balloon lobby, a bill introduced last month would finally make the intentional release of helium balloons as part of an event illegal in New Jersey.

Violators could be fined up to $500. Because only do these hundreds of balloons become a source of litter, they can be a hazard if entangled in power lines, causing outages, or swallowed by sea turtles that mistake them for lunch.

Several towns along the Jersey Shore already ban releasing helium balloons. Lawmaker wants statewide ban.

Take a hard look at the grisly photos of dead birds and a turtle that encountered the remnants of party balloons in our state, posted online by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This is the terrible toll of your birthday.

Several towns have already banned balloon releases at events, but it's haphazard policy. The only reason we haven't banned them statewide is the political influence of the Trenton-based Balloon Council, which says this "creates a negative narrative about balloons."

Well, yes. It does. The council also argues it's a threat to mom and pop businesses. But why not just tie your balloons up during an event, and when it's over, pop them?

This group, which has spent more than $1 million in the past five years lobbying legislators against regulations, argues the threat to wildlife is exaggerated. Even though you find balloon bits in trees and on beaches, it says, it's not at the quantity of empty bottles and cans.

And so what? Who wants to see some poor seagull dangling from a wire a few days after the Fourth of July, wearing a stars-and-stripes balloon string as a necktie?

The lobbyists now plan to meet with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-Atlantic) to see if they can get him to drop this measure, the Bergen Record reports. Stay strong, senator. For the sake of our beaches and wildlife, stand up to the balloon bullies.

Fossil holds new insights into how fish evolved onto land

June 21, 2017

"It's like a snake on the outside, but a fish on the inside."

The fossil of an early snake-like animal - called Lethiscus stocki - has kept its evolutionary secrets for the last 340-million years.

Now, an international team of researchers, led by the University of Calgary, has revealed new insights into the ancient Scottish fossil that dramatically challenge our understanding of the early evolution of tetrapods, or four-limbed animals with backbones.

Their findings have just been published in the prestigious international research journal Nature."It forces a radical rethink of what evolution was capable of among the first tetrapods," said project lead Jason Anderson, a paleontologist and Professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

Before this study, ancient tetrapods—the ancestors of humans and other modern-day vertebrates - were thought to have evolved very slowly from fish to animals with limbs.

"We used to think that the fin-to-limb transition was a slow evolution to becoming gradually less fish like," he said. "But Lethiscus shows immediate, and dramatic, evolutionary experimentation. The lineage shrunk in size, and lost limbs almost immediately after they first evolved. It's like a snake on the outside but a fish on the inside."

Lethicus' secrets revealed with 3D medical imaging

Using micro-computer tomography (CT) scanners and advanced computing software, Anderson and study lead author Jason Pardo, a doctoral student supervised by Anderson, got a close look at the internal anatomy of the fossilized Lethiscus. After reconstructing CT scans its entire skull was revealed, with extraordinary results.

"The anatomy didn't fit with our expectations," explains Pardo. "Many body structures didn't make sense in the context of amphibian or reptile anatomy." But the anatomy did make sense when it was compared to early fish.

"We could see the entirety of the skull. We could see where the brain was, the inner ear cavities. It was all extremely fish-like," explains Pardo, outlining anatomy that's common in fish but unknown in tetrapods except in the very first. The anatomy of the paddlefish, a modern fish with many primitive features, became a model for certain aspects of Lethiscus' anatomy.

Read more at: 

Researchers identify mammals that are most likely to harbor viruses risky to humans

June 22, 2017 by Bob Yirka report

(—A team of researchers with the EcoHealth Alliance has narrowed down the list of animal species that may harbor viruses likely to jump to humans. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group outlines the process they used to collect viral data on mammals around the globe, sorted them into groups and listed where they live. James Lloyd-Smith with the University of California offers a News & Views piece on the work done by the team in the same journal issue.

Scientists know that many of the viral threats we humans will face in the future are likely to come from viruses that already exist but reside in other species, particularly other mammals. The animal hosts have built up some degree of immunity to them, but we have not. Thus, if they jump to us, the result can be devastating. In this new effort, the researchers sought to catalogue all of the known viruses that infect mammals around the globe and identify which are most likely to jump to humans.

To create such a catalogue, the researchers created a database that held information on 754 mammal species, which represented 14 percent of all known mammals. They also added approximately 600 known viruses that infect mammals (of which a third were known to jump to humans) and which animals they infect. Next, they created mathematical models to use information in the database to provide useful information regarding the likelihood of a virus jumping to humans.

The researchers report that their models suggest that the likelihood of a virus jumping from a mammal species to humans depends heavily on species and geography. Bats were found to carry the largest number of viruses likely to jump to humans and the areas where it was most likely to occur were South and Central America. Primates posed the second largest risk factor, particularly in Central America, Africa and Southwest Asia. Rodents came in third with the risk most pronounced in North and South America and Central Africa.

Read more at:

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

How a female-only line of salamanders 'steals' genes from unsuspecting males- Kleptogenesis gets a little less mysterious in a new study. – via Herp Digest

Popular Science by  Rachel Feltman, 7/14/17

Imagine a lineage made up solely of women. Generation after generation, these females pilfer genes from males—not mating and reproducing in the usual way, but using sex as a means to collect genetic material that they can parcel out to their offspring in seemingly any configuration. A few genes here, a few genes there, generation after generation. It's not some Themyscira-esque fantasy: some lady salamanders have been carrying on this way for millions of years.

The strange reproductive behaviors of the genus Ambystoma aren't new to science. Researchers have known for some time that one lineage of these animals—a line of salamanders that only ever have female offspring—persist by collecting the genetic material of males from several other species in the genus. But in case this is your first time encountering the fantastical world of "kleptogenesis" (side note: great word), here's a run-down.

Many members of the salamander genus Ambystoma are sexual creatures—by which we mean males drop sperm packets to fertilize female eggs, producing offspring with a set of genetic instructions from each of their two parents. But unisexual Ambystoma lizards do it better. These females pick up those packets, but they can gather more than one with which to fertilize their eggs. And once they do, it seems to be up to them to decide which parts of the genome—if any—they use from each of their mates.

"Most vertebrates that reproduce in ways that involve only females end up being sperm-dependent in one way or another," says Maurine Neiman, associate professor in biology at the University of Iowa. Many of those lineages become "sperm parasites", requiring sperm to penetrate their eggs in order to trigger development into embryos. They need that sperm to get things going, but they throw the genetic material away—essentially creating clone daughters while obeying the reproductive mechanics developed by their sexually reproducing ancestors.

"Superficially, these salamanders seem to have a lot in common with those other females," Neiman says. But in fact, their "bizarre" method of reproduction has never been documented in another animal. And it's kept them alive for much longer than other methods of makeshift asexual reproduction.

"They have the same dependence on sperm, but they also keep the genomes—or some of them, anyway—of the males they mate with," she explains.

The female salamanders seem to be able to dole out genes to their daughters in all sorts of configurations. Individuals are basically salamander hybrids made up of the DNA of a variety of species, unified by common mitochondrial DNA (which a mother passes directly to her children, with no male input) from an ancient ancestor. Some carry five unique genomes around in the nuclei of their cells. They appear to always carry at least one copy of the A. laterale genome (the blue-spotted salamander), even though this species doesn't seem to be the one from which they all descend. Scientists still don't know how a salamander "chooses" what genes to give her daughter, but they know that mom can basically make whatever kind of Franken-mander she desires.

"Let’s say she’s got three copies of a genome," Neiman explains—plus one she was born with. "She might not incorporate any of the surplus genes [into her babies]. She might incorporate one of their genomes along with her own. She might give them all three plus her own, so her baby has four. Or she could even leave out the one she was born with and pass along the other three.”

"In biology, one way to get at a question is to look at something weird."

In a study published recently in Genome Biology and Evolution, Neiman and her colleagues at the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University—led by a graduate student from each lab—tried to puzzle out what the heck a salamander does when spoiled for gene choice. And they were fueled by more than just herpetological curiosity.

"We're interested in the broader question of why genomes are organized as they are in most animals," she says. "We typically have two copies. Why is that? We don't have a good understanding of that. And in biology, one way to get at a question is to look at something weird. You can sometimes understand the typical by figuring out how the exception to the rule works.”

The little lady her team studied was definitely an exception to the rule: she carried three genomes, making her a "triploid" organism. Analysis of her DNA revealed that most of the genes taken from males of other species—Ambystoma laterale, Ambystoma texanum, and Ambystoma tigrinum—had been expressed equally. Genes make us who we are by instructing our cells to make certain proteins at certain times, contributing to specific bodily structures and processes. We say a gene is "expressed" when it's allowed to do the thing it's meant to do, leading to some physical result. If you've got multiple genomes kicking around, you probably have genes that don't need to be turned on—they might be duplicates of a gene from another source, or even produce proteins that conflict with those made by different genes. According to the new study, while a salamander seems to pass her ill-begotten genes down in all manner of assorted mixtures, her daughter is likely to use the resulting genomes pretty equally to dictate her bodily functions. That's unusual in the world of hybrids.

"That surprised us," Neiman says. "When you have hybrids, you usually think one genome is going to be used preferentially while the other is shut down. But these questions are typically asked in the context of plant hybrids." Many of the crops we grow today have been hybridized so much throughout their evolutionary history that they now carry many genomes; wheat has six copies of each of its seven chromosomes. Scientists know an awful lot more about plant hybrids than strange critters like these salamanders, Neiman says, but it's possible that a better understanding of how the extreme gene swapping works could help us breed better crops in the future.

"You start to wonder if this ability to have so much genomic flexibility set them up to be able to use their bizarre method of reproduction," she says. "Does this mean that in general, animals are more flexible about genome use than plants?" Answering that question could help us understand more about how the two kingdoms evolved.

It could be that this balance is key to keeping the (kind of absurd) method of procreation going. “If you have a team that’s unbalanced and loses a top player, you won’t win,” Kyle McElroy, a graduate student in Neiman’s lab and the paper’s corresponding author, said in a statement. “But if every player is equal, then you don’t lose as much.”

Neiman and her colleagues can't be sure whether the genome equality persists as things get more crowded. The follow-up study that's "just crying out to be done," Neiman says, would be to examine a salamander with even more genomes—some females are born carrying a genome from five different species of Ambystoma. More study is definitely needed to suss out these strange salamanders.

The promiscuity of Ambystoma can be hard to wrap your head around if you think of species in the way most of us learn about them in school: individuals that can reproduce with one another. Hybrids like the unisexual members of Ambystoma muck that all up: they actually need to mate with multiple species in order to avoid extinction. And far from being sterile mules, their daughters continue to exhibit the incredible ability to steal and reconfigure genes for generation after generation. But Neiman says that the creatures are just one example of how fluid biology truly is.

"You’re talking to an evolutionary biologist who thinks a lot of the talk about speciation is just hype," she says. "We’re humans, we like to put things in categories. But I’m not crazy about the idea that species are concrete in biology, outside of human context. Defining a species is useful in terms of research, but I'd say these salamanders demonstrate the messiness of biology and evolution—the fascinating and complicated reality that remains when you take the human need to put things into neat categories out of the picture."

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