Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Salamander's Tale

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.



thepowerguides said...

many many many years ago when I was a young lad I used to go fishing a lot and used to take home eels for the cats.

Excuse coming up ( I was young remember )

I did not know any better and when I got home one night put my LIVE EELS in a bag in the freezer ( parents both in bed ) and went off to bed , in the morning my mum found the rock solid frozen eels and put them on the side out of the way of the cats.

about 4 hours later we got home and the place was in chaos the eels had come back to life and were all over the floor behind cupboards trying to get away.

Bout 3 months later as the smell in the kitchen got much worse we realised they had not all got away hehehe


Back in Oklahoma, fishing involved using 'mud puppies' which are also rather resilient. After my boyfriend brought home some of the extra 'puppies' not used that day, he placed the cooler in my deep freezer. Well, they were forgotten for a while and the water froze over. When the cooler was taken out, it looked like they were goners.....but no....those critters thawed and lived. Amazing.

Shauna said...

TPG- too funny. I had a goldfish that disappeared from my tank. My dad found it 10 years later when they were renovating. It had flopped into the floor air vent, dried out and mummified. I thought my brother stole it, as he had done that to another one.

Lisa, I believe the mudpuppies are actually a species of salamander. And they are resilient like mant amphibians. think of the frogs that burrow into the mud at the bottom of ponds where they freeze, then in the spring thaw out and come back to life. As well there is a Canadian northern frog currently being studied because of its remarkable ability to withstand freezing of its blood, then come back to life.

I truly believe the answer to everything lies in nature.

mdmhvonpa said...

I can think of a few ppl who would not be all too pleased about imparting genetic traits from a salamander to a human. Then again ... the freezing till medical attention can be rendered ... wow.

Shauna said...

Hey PA,
I'm sure you know this but will clarify for others who may not know...imparting genetic traits would not be the point of studying this phenomena. The point would be to discover how the salamanders keep the tail moving (and how they regenerate limbs) without a direct power source. Regeneration of a limb also involves regeneration of nerves. How are the nerves grown? How can we repair our own nerves after being destroyed by MS?
These are all little pieces of that stupid puzzle we're trying to figure out.

Jim said...

I am scottish and I am planning to visit Nova Scotia someday. Thank you for sharing this.


Shauna said...

Nova Scotia is probably one of the most beautiful places on the face of the planet, geologically, scenery-wise, and ocean-wise. I could go on for days about all the nifty places and things to see here, but it's best if you just come on up and explore on your own. Of course, let me know when you're coming and I'll put the kettle on for a cup of tea.


Is this kind of how chickens can still run around with their heads cut off? Hence the saying?!? LOL

Linda D. in Seattle

Shauna said...

It's similar. Another part is that the head wasn't severed at the right angle. I read about a guy in the States who had a headless chicken for a time. It's cut was not at the right angle and a little bit of the brain stem remained attached so it remained alive for a while, able to walk around.
This is turning into a Frankenstein story...