For Their Eyes Only

Saving the blind salamander

The Amphibi-Lens will help the salamanders go incognito.
The Amphibi-Lens will help the salamanders go incognito.

It's tough to be a Texas blind salamander. Not only are you ugly, slithery, and totally blind, but you are also endangered. As rapid urbanization degrades the salamander's underwater habitat – primarily caves southwest of Austin, near San Marcos – many individuals venture out of their increasingly murky homes in search of food and cleaner water. All too frequently, however, only death and digestion await. Unused to full-light environments, the blind salamanders are quickly snatched up by predators; and even if they manage to hide from voracious hunters, the sunlight fries their delicate vestigial eye-spots.

All that could change thanks to a new program by Texas Wildlife & Parks. The program, called Operation SHADE (Salamanders Helped by Awesome and Dramatic Eyewear) is an ambitious effort to fit the entire known population of Texas blind salamanders with designer-made dark lenses over their eye-spots. TWP believes the devices, called Amphibi-Lens, will help the creatures survive and thrive in strange, new environments. "The Amphibi-Lens will help the salamanders go incognito," said TWP spokesman Rusty McNeil. "Behind the large, dark, stylish frames, their customary predators will be unable to recognize them, and therefore will leave them alone."

Environmentalists praised the TWP for their attention to the issue of endangered species, but also expressed concerns. Colin Clarksville of Save Our Salamanders Alliance called the otherwise laudable program a "Band-Aid" that mocks the real point of the Endangered Species Act – habitat protection for all species – and allows polluters to shrug off the consequences of their dirty business.

"Operation SHADE keeps Texans in the dark," he said. "We need to treat causes, not symptoms. The water of the Edwards Aquifer must remain clean and plentiful so that salamanders don't need to travel, or even go out in public, but can stay in their homes." Warning that Operation SHADE will be only the first of many similar programs, Clarksville pointed out that engineers from Advanced Microscopic Devices are already at work on salamander-sized Self-Contained Out-of-Water Breathing Apparatus gear that will allow Barton Springs salamanders to survive whenever their pool becomes as polluted as Keith Richards' liver, or as dry as a Baptist sock hop.

Environmentalists aren't the only ones concerned about the unintended consequences of Operation SHADE. Laurie Morrissey of the Austin Council of Neighbors, pointed to a recent proposal to relieve a shortage of cave-spider habitat through the construction high-rise arachnid condominiums. That program collapsed when scientists realized the condos' impact on property taxes in nearby neighborhoods would force the last remaining Helotes mold beetles out of their homes. "Don't change anything," Morrissey warned. "If you change anything, things will change."

Not everyone received the plan quite so negatively. Mayor Will Winsome showed his support by agreeing to appear in an educational film promoting the program. The aquatic musical, which has the working title Springtime for Salamanders, will feature Winsome (whose recent film work has included acclaimed leap-ons and lurch-ons as a bridge-jumper and a zombie) as the Salamander King, opposite a yet-unnamed Esther Williams look-alike as Salamander Queen. (Rumors that Council Member Jennifer "Water-Wings" Kimberly would be offered the role were not confirmed at press time.) Winsome aide Curtis I. Mayfield confirmed that the mayor's role would require some nudity, but said the mayor had agreed to it after confirming that the script is "tasteful," "artistic," and "would not interfere with the mating patterns of actual salamanders."

"At first the mayor was concerned his presence might confuse the female salamanders, who, as endangered species, should be encouraged to mate as frequently as possible with other salamanders," said Mayfield. "But then he was reminded the salamanders are blind."

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