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No, No, They're Not Just Slimy Lizards

Art.Science.Gallery. brings salamanders up-close & personal

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 2:45PM, Thu. May. 22

Here There Be Tigers
Here There Be Tigers

Yes, salamanders: The creatures that Austin citizens, ah, leveraged the synergy of during the struggle to keep Barton Springs safe from various developer-based program activities.

But this isn't about just that kind of salamander.

All salamanders, of all kinds, will be celebrated at Art.Science.Gallery's free "Year of the Salamander" exhibition that 1) opens this Saturday night at their excellent space in Big Medium's Canopy and 2) is co-produced by the good folks of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

[Note: The actual endangered species of Barton Springs Salamander that captured so much attention back in the day? Some of them will be on display, live, courtesy of the City of Austin's captive breeding facility.]

Gallery owner Hayley Gillespie has curated a fine array of artwork in a variety of media – all depicting or inspired by the fascinating amphibious creatures, created by 22 artists from Austin, from Texas, and beyond. And why is that? We know Gillespie – Dr. Gillespie, in fact – is a biologist who's studied salamanders for over a decade. But – why the interest in the creatures in the first place?

Hayley Gillespie: I saw my first salamander on a summer vacation to Aquarena Springs when I was a kid, and I thought they were pretty awesome! When I went to grad school at UT nearly 15 years later, I found out that there was a whole lot we still didn’t know about the ecology and behavior of Central Texas salamanders and their habitat, so that’s what I decided to research. I’ve always had an affinity for the "herps," the reptiles and amphibians. I think they’re the little bad-asses of the animal kingdom.

Austin Chronicle: In describing the informal "Salamander 101" class that you offer in conjunction with this exhibition, you mention that salamanders can be "the size of your pinky-finger nail or larger than your mom." So we've got to ask: Have you personally seen a salamander larger than your mom? Or, anyway, what's the biggest salamander you've seen?

HG: The biggest salamander I’ve ever seen is Andrias davidianus – the Chinese Giant Salamander – in the new Fort Worth Zoo’s Museum of Living Art. The salamander in that exhibit isn’t actually larger than my mom, but that species can reach lengths of up to 5.9 feet!

AC: And finally: The differences between a salamander and lizard, that seems like a no-brainer. But we've got to confess ignorance in a similar area: What's the basic difference between a salamander and a newt?

HG: All newts are salamanders (Order: Caudata), but not all salamanders are newts. A newt is a type of salamander that has a granular, rough skin as opposed to smooth skin – sort of like how you can tell the difference between frogs and toads by the texture of their skin. Newts often have a more complex life cycle than the basic egg>aquatic larvae>terrestrial adult type that many salamanders have. The newts we have in Texas are born from eggs in the water, become terrestrial “red efts” as juveniles, and become aquatic again as adults. So they have metamorphosis twice: once from egg>juvenile and another from juvenile>adult. It’s a major physiological feat! While North America does have some newt species, it has really high non-newt salamander diversity, whereas Europe has a lot more newt diversity.

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