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
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!"