- Before: You get newts in the Iranian desert?!
- After: Well, my geography’s terrible. At least the newt has an excuse.
It’s never a good sign when an animal disappears from its namesake location. And most of the previous records still call it “Persia”.
Such are the fun and games for the Lake Urmia newt, named after a vanishing body of water in Iran, but found in the north of the country, in south-east Anatolia in Turkey, and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The keen-eyed among you may have spotted another potential problem with the location, but is isolation from humans such a bad thing? Well the data is spotty, at best. (See what I did there?)
Its preference for lush mountainous streams cordoned off by rocks, war, and local ethnic tensions make the Lake Urmia newt notoriously hard to study. We don’t know the status of its population, and in terms of clutch size, my sources gave estimates from 30 to 350 eggs! The “larvae” – a name that seems odd considering their cute newty faces and mad-professor-hair fins – mature in about 6 months, and the adults can live as long as the family pet. Well, unless it’s a tortoise.
Üzüm et al’s 2011 study found newts as old as 17, so if it can stick around that long, something can obviously go right. As long as the elements, disease, and some of the locals don’t get to it first.
Opening the floodgates
When Elnaz Najafi-Majd rocked up for her 2018 study in Oshnavieh, Iran, she found the survey area had been flooded, destroying roads and in all likelihood, whole colonies of Lake Urmia newts. It’s not a fan of fast-flowing water, or the dams planned in some of its Turkish habitat, and what’s more, it has a bone to pick with the vibrant frogs we’ve looked at.
Why would a teeny creature be brightly coloured and obvious if it wasn’t lethally poisonous? Hence the (not unreasonable) logic of some of the locals, and the resulting, less reasonable newt assassination. On top of that, anything that sits prettily in the palm of your hand is rife for pet collection, bringing yet another wave of issues.
Homesick or travel sick? How about both.
The Lake Urmia newt isn’t listed in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), so its import and export aren’t as regulated. Some have fallen victim to the dreaded chytrid fungus currently rampaging across international frogdom, despite being healthy before capture. Captive broods have also seen mysterious die-offs, even those belonging to the keeper of their extremely slim stud-book (yes, this is a thing). But what can be done to help? A grass-roots approach, for one thing.
As well as talking to locals, Najafi-Majd and her team hung information cards in shop windows, gave school presentations to 300 students, and provided some sweet cloth bags with newt logo to raise awareness about the animals and the importance of biodiversity. They’re planning to continue organising presentations and school trips to bolster its profile, so this little newt can enjoy some additional love and protection in the area.
But will that be enough, when it lives on both kinds of slippery slope?
Latin: Neurergus crocatus
What: Black and yellow spotted newt.
Where? Mountainous streams in Iran, Turkey and Iraq.
How big? 16-18 cm / 6-7 inches long.
Endangered? Considered Vulnerable due to its restricted range and possible habitat loss.
Probable motto: Despite the bright spots and obvious name, I’m hard to find.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
An unfun combination of climate change and drought, disease, local persecution and future dam-building don’t exactly bode well for this little amphibian. It’s also hard to study and watch out for due to current and historical conflict in some of its range. Frustratingly, I couldn’t find any specific conservation drives, but the Amphibian Survival Allliance looks out for amphibians worldwide.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Dufresnes, Christophe. 2018. “Amphibians of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide“. Bloomsbury.
Najafi-Majd, Elnaz. 2018. “Ecology and Conservation of Threatened species, Lake Urmia Newt, Neurergus crocatus Cope, 1862 in Iran“. The Rufford Foundation.
Najafi-Majd, Elnaz, and Kaya, Uğur. 2013. “Rediscovery of the Lake Urmia newt, Neurergus crocatus Cope, 1862 (Caudata: Salamandridae) in northwestern Iran after 150 years“. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation 6(4):36-41.
Papenfuss, T., et al. 2009. “Neurergus crocatus (errata version published in 2016)“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2009.
Schneider, Christoph, and Schneider, Willi. 2010. “Fieldnotes on the ecology and distribution of Neurergus crocatus COPE, 1862 and Neurergus strauchii strauchii
(STEINDACHNER, 1887) in Turkey”. Herpetozoa 23(1-2):59-69.
Schultschick, Günter. 2002. [translated in 2004 by Jennifer Macke and Ralf Reinartz]. “Neurergus crocatus species information“. AG Urodela.
Sparreboom, Max. 2014. “Salamanders of the Old World“. KNNV Publishing.
Stöhr, Anke C. et al. 2013. “Ranavirus infection in a group of wild-caught Lake Urmia newts Neurergus crocatus imported from Iraq into Germany“. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 103(3):185-9.
UNEP-WCMC. 2016. “Review of the risk posed by importing Asiatic species of Caudate amphibians (salamanders and newts) into the EU“. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.
Üzüm, N. et al. 2011. “Body size and age structure of a breeding population portion of the Urmia salamander, Neurergus
crocatus Cope, 1862 (Caudata: Salamandridae)”. Italian Journal of Zoology 78:2, 209-214
Featured image credit: Neurergus crocatus by Henk Wallays