Redback Salamander from Salamanders in the Hamilton Harbour Ecosystem
In Nova Scotia we have an incredible coastline. Each year it gives up more and more information about the geology of the land and what animals lived on it. The fossils people are discovering are fantastic and I've been lucky enough to have come across a few on my own. About 45 minutes from where I live, at low tide, you can walk out on the beach to a set of footprints thought to be 350 millions years old. Way cool! Though some doubt if they're actually footprints or if they're fin marks.
If they are footprints, they were made by a giant salamander like creature. By giant, I mean by today's standard. I was told (by a geologist) that it was about 6 feet long. That'sa one-a big-a newt. No way would I have tried to pick that one up.
Of course I pick up or attempt to pick various and sundry animals I come across, including salamanders. They are amphibians, related to frogs, and have a remarkable ability to regnerate limbs. As a matter of fact, if startled by what they think is a predator, their tail can just "let go" and become disconnected from the rest of the body. The tail wiggles like crazy so the predator goes after that and gives the animal enough of a chance to escape.
A few years ago, a friend and I cultivated a garden in her backyard to grow vegetables. I must say I was really more keen on investigating the creatures that took up residence in the garden. One day, we discovered a group of baby salamanders, maybe 1 and a half to 2 inches long. I reached down to pick one up and the tail just popped right off. I picked up the salamander, apologized for scaring it unintentionally, then picked up the tail. I had it on the palm of my hand and watched it for about 10 minutes as it wiggled and squirmed. It was the most disconcerting thing, like a severed hand in a horror movie crawling along a floor, as it seemed to be powered by...nothing! It was just moving on its own.
From the time I was a kid and had learned about this phenomenon, I was amazed by it. But until I was almost 40 had never actually seen it. I put the tail back on the ground, continued with the weeding and watering of the garden, and after twenty minutes went back to pick it up. As I did so, it started to move again! This thing had been disconnected from its "power" souce for half an hour but still had some "juice" left in it. Wow! But again, disconcerting. It's kind of like how you'd feel if you unplugged your TV from the wall, but it suddenly came on again. Spooky.
What is the power source for the tail? It's a combination of chemical and electrical activity. The length of time the "power" stays effective depends on the species of animal and it's size. That got me thinking about a chemical and power source for folks with neuronal damage due to spinal cord injury (SCI) or diseases like MS. I know they're experimenting with electricity to allow people to stand and walk again. I've seen the contraptions patients wear to electrically stimulate the legs to allow them to be mobile. (It's still fairly early in the game to make these things practical and cost effective for the general public, though there are types of TENS contraptions to help those not as severely affected as an SCI person)
Last night I was speaking with a woman from the VON (Victorian Order of Nurses) at a fundraiser I was MCing for them. Mary and I had a wonderful talk last year, (at the same event) and last night we continued our chat of shared interest in science and nature. We talked of frogs and that led to salamanders. She's had some of the same ideas as me and went so far as to send an e-mail to the Christopher Reeve Foundation to inquire if they were investigating salamanders' amazing ability and what the implications were for human rehabilitation. She still hasn't heard back from them.
But I'll bet dollars to donuts, it's going to be something as simple as a salamander's tail that solves the mystery of MS.