Who Knew? Of Salamanders and Their Service. Well. All Services.

Sandra Neily here: this article was first published in my 2005 “Valuing Nature” column in the Moosehead Messenger. We’re all likely to have a hibernating winter ahead of us. Like salamanders.  Sometime in the spring we can crawl out to be social again. Like salamanders. Time now to think ahead when we can be outside with kids or grandkids, turning over logs to find and visit salamanders. (A guaranteed crowd pleaser!)

Under the soil a large army of wiggly, illusive engineers, soil scientists, and food service workers are helping to create billions of dollars of economic value. If we could count each of them working in a factory, we could value them as part of our economy. Just how are we to value these tiny, essential and moist forest workers who add so much value to our lives? Salamanders aerate the soil and support essential biological processes that enhance soil productivity and they are excellent “protein concentrators.” Without beaks, feathers, or scales, every bite of a salamander is an efficient nutritional delivery system for other animals.

Spotted Salamander

Natural ecosystems (like forests) perform fundamental life-support services upon which we depend.  Just like the life support team in a trauma center, these services give us life itself and without them, we would most certainly perish. We value forests for timber and recreation but they provide a myriad of other services that clean our air, filter our water, provide over 50% of new medicine development, and regulate our climate. While many people “get” this concept they are unprepared for what comes next.  The economics of supporting a healthy ecosystem “service” or replacing a degraded one has now become an essential calculation and the question of how we develop without losses or who pays for a loss will become even more controversial.

Red Spotted Newt

Salamanders are part of a vast and shadowy economy referred to as “ecosystem services.” Ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources that we often take for granted: clean water, habitat for fisheries, or pollination of native and agricultural plants.

(In Maine wild honey bees and their pollination services help support a $75 million blueberry industry, yet bee populations are threatened by pollution and pesticides.)

Sometimes it’s easier to understand an ecosystem service and its value if we have to think about paying to replace it once it is damaged and gone. When New York City’s water supply fell below accepted standards, the price tag for building an artificial filtration plant was $6-$8 billion dollars, a high price for what had been “free” before.  The city decided to spend $660 million to restore and protect the watershed (the water source.)  These funds purchased land, halted inappropriate development and compensated landowners who improved septic systems.

This “who pays” question does lead to other some possibly sticky issues in Maine.  If harvesting so affected deer wintering areas in Washington County that local income from deer hunting was seriously reduced, who should pay the correct price for restoring that particular ecosystem service?  If degraded air quality from ancient coal burning plants in the Midwest brings Maine significant costs from illness as well as lost productivity, who pays to replace the values of the service of clean air?   If extensive development on shorelines degrades water quality and affects the economic value of publicly owned resources valuable for tourism (rivers, lakes, wildlife), who compensates future generations for that loss?

salamander eggs in a vernal pool

As New York’s challenge reminds us, a penny spent on prevention is our wisest course.  Preventing the loss or degradation of essential ecosystem services is just a smarter, cheaper route to travel.  For the salamanders that means encouraging landowners to know amphibian breeding routes, leave shade trees to cover roads on these routes, and buffer vernal pools necessary for creating the next generation of “soil scientists.”

a Maine vernal pool

In return, for free, we all receive the ecosystem benefits of creatures who are an important part of forest health.

The journal “Nature” has this message of all of us: “The economies of the Earth would grind to a halt without the services of ecological life support systems, so in one sense their total value to the economy is infinite.”  A recent report attempting to calculate the global value of ecosystem services places their worth at somewhere between $16-$54 trillion dollars (or a mean of $33 trillion). The sum total of the world’s gross natural product from all countries is $18 trillion. That’s a lot of salamanders.

Slow down in the spring. The amphibians are seeking romance in vernal pools, crossing from upland areas down to vernal pools.

Check out this great 202o NY Times article on a Maine couple saving salamanders.

And this one from my very good friend and salamander road warrior, Dr. Sally Stockwell.


Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” was a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards, a recipient of a Mystery Writers of America national award and a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest.. Her second Mystery in Maine novel, “Deadly Turn” is now in Sherman’s Books and on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. She lives in the Maine woods and says she’d rather be “fly fishing, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there.” Find more info on her website.

About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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4 Responses to Who Knew? Of Salamanders and Their Service. Well. All Services.

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Fascinating. We have numerous frogs and vernal pools on our property in Northern Maine, but I have never seen (or looked for) salamanders here. I’ll be on the lookout this spring. Thank you for the education.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Thanks! And what a great gift you have with vernal pools. During the first few warmer nights of spring rain (but still very cool in general), the amphibian crawl from uplands to vernal pools for breeding starts. Mostly nocturnal I think. Am not a biologist. Then salamanders can be found under moist logs until the summer heat. I included an amphibian moment in my latest (Deadly Turn) where the narrator tries to impress a teenager with how much (if collected and piled up) amphibian flesh would dwarf piled up moose flesh.

  2. Great post. My granddaughter Piper loves to look for salamanders in her back yard.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Thanks, John! If you find some eggs in vernal pools, bet she’d like to see them hatch into tadpoles and then grow legs. (In a large fishbowl or tank with same pond water in it.) Word of warning. Release before the legs turn everyone into frogs and they escape into the house. (Not sure my mother ever recovered.) Hope you and yours are OK!

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