Ecology major Todd Pierson has received a National Geographic Young Explorers grant to travel to China to study what may prove to be a new species of giant salamander. Pierson’s work will not only add to the world’s knowledge about these salamanders, but could also help guide China’s policies for conserving them.
Pierson, an Honors student and Udall Scholar from Zionsville, Indiana, has travelled the world pursuing his interest in salamanders. He has worked in Europe, Central America, the Middle East, and, closer to home, in Stephens County, Georgia, where he researched a salamander species that was first described in 2009. Pierson will use his Young Explorers grant to study a little-known population of giant salamanders in a remote region of China’s Qinghai province.
The Chinese Giant Salamander, Andrias davidianus, which can grow to six feet in length, is the largest amphibian in the world. Found in eastern China, it is a traditional food source that is now commercially farmed. In the wild, however, it is in serious decline due to overharvesting and habitat degradation, and is listed on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered.
According to Pierson, scientists who’ve studied Chinese Giant Salamanders from different river basins suspect that Andrias davidianus is actually several distinct species, based on genetic evidence. Separate species that appear indistinguishable from one another but can’t interbreed are known as cryptic species. “Recognizing and describing these cryptic species is not mere semantics,” said Pierson. “It drives conservation.” Scientists may not realize that a species is at risk of extinction if they believe it has a much larger population and range than it really does, he explained.
Pierson, working with Theodore Papenfuss of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jing Che of the Kunming Institute of Zoology, will be looking for evidence of a distinct species of giant salamander in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, an area geographically isolated from other known populations. The impetus to look for salamanders there comes from a single specimen in the Northwest Plateau Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Pierson and his colleagues will analyze and compare the DNA of tissue samples they collect with tissue samples of Chinese Giant Salamanders from other areas. This will allow them to determine whether the Qinghai population is indeed a distinct species.
“If this disjunct population is significantly genetically divergent from the rest of Andrias davidianus, we will designate it a new species,” said Pierson. “While China currently has several preserves established to conserve Andrias davidianus, they are designed with neither population variation nor cryptic diversity in mind,” he said, adding that this discovery could guide China’s policies for Andrias conservation.
"Cataloging the taxonomy of our planet is tough, important work,” said John Gittleman, dean of the Odum School of Ecology. “It's extremely rare that an undergraduate is involved in such cutting edge research, and because of this, National Geographic has made an investment in Todd's field studies. Certainly, Todd will be one of the leaders in conservation and management of the world's biodiversity.”