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Three new black-bellied salamanders were hidden in plain sight

In a win for biodiversity, scientists from George Washington University have discovered three new species of black-bellied salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus). These new species inhabit the southern Appalachian mountains in the eastern United States. 

The species were hidden in plain sight because they are known as cryptic species, which are species that do not look very different. For more than 100 years, scientists believed the salamanders all belonged to the same group. 

“Black-bellied salamanders have been commonly studied for over 100 years,” said lead researcher R. Alexander Pyron.

“In 2002, a cryptic dwarf species was discovered, and, in 2005, DNA evidence began to suggest there were still more. It wasn’t until our NSF-funded research in 2020 that we were able to sequence genome-scale data to figure out there were actually five similar-looking species.”

The researchers began to take a closer look at the black-bellied salamander and noticed slight morphological, genetic, and geographic differences between individuals. Some were different sizes, different shapes, or had their own unique color patterns. 

Through genetic analysis, the experts determined that there are five species of black-bellied salamander – three of which were unknown to scientists. The new species are D. gvnigeusgwotli, D. kanawha, and D. mavrokoilius.

Pyron said that black-bellied salamanders have been miscategorized for a long time. “After looking at multiple specimens, we see obvious and substantial phenotypic variation between most lineages.”

“In fact, the name ‘quadramaculatus,’ which was used for over 120 years, is not the correct name for any of these five species. We tracked down the original specimens at museums in Philadelphia and Paris and found that they belonged to a totally separate species. This raises the question of how ‘cryptic’ they ultimately are.”

According to the researchers, this discovery offers opportunities to learn about the new black-bellied salamanders. These cryptic species may have more secrets to reveal.

Image Credit: Todd Pierson, Kennesaw State University

This study is published in the journal Bionomina.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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