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Smith Team Discovers New Species

You may not see them every day, and you may not want to see them, but deep within the world’s slimy dark places, unknown to most of us, a slippery amphibian has evolved for millions of years.

The salamander has been scurrying among the earth’s shaded areas for possibly 5 million years (though that estimate has a low level of certainty, experts say).

Recently, Jennifer Anderson ’99 and Stephen Tilley, the Myra M. Sampson Professor of Biology, documented their identification of a new salamander species following their molecular analysis of the amphibious creatures in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. Their discovery, which was reported recently in the Knoxville News Sentinel, was originally published last September in Herpetological Monograps, an annual periodical produced by The Herpetologists’ League, a national group devoted to the study of the biology of reptiles and amphibians.

The newly identified species, named Desmognathus abditus, or Cumberland dusky salamander, was originally thought to be the same as the mountain dusky salamander, a well-known species that also inhabits the Cumberland Plateau.

Jennifer Anderson ’99 and Amy Todd ’97 in Tennessee

After several cumulative weeks spent studying the Cumberland dusky in the field between 1997 and 2002, Anderson and Tilley concluded that their discovery was indeed distinct from its mountain dusky cousin. “The evolutionary dependence of this form is indicated by the substantial levels of gene differentiation and limited gene exchange between it and nearby populations,” they wrote in the article. Also, adds Tilley, “the new species looks pretty different from the Mountain Dusky salamander.”

The description of an unidentified species was first given in Anderson’s senior thesis, “A new species of Desmognathus from the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee,” which she completed in 1999 under Tilley’s supervision.

“Her paper describes a new species of animal from eastern North America,” notes Tilley of Anderson’s thesis. However, her Smith thesis refrained from naming the species in accordance with rules in the scientific community. “The identification of the new salamander species enhances our understanding of the diversity and evolutionary histories of the organisms that inhabit our planet.”

Tilley and Anderson’s field work in the Cumberland region was done with the help of Amy Todd ’97 and others, and was financially supported by Smith’s Blakeslee Genetics Research Fund.

These days, Anderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Davis, studying evolution and ecology, and presumably keeping her eyes open for more new species.

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