May 04, 2005

SIUC herpetologist chronicles newly discovered salamander

by Paula Davenport


Asian Salamander

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A secretive little salamander — discovered recently in Korea — appears to fill in a massive gap in one of the animal world's evolutionary puzzles, says herpetologist Ronald A. Brandon, professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Brandon is elated by the find.

Seems one of his former undergraduate zoology students, Stephen Karsen, uncovered the critter, which it turns out is a completely new genus and species of salamander.

Nature magazine reports the scientific details of Karsen's find in a May 5 article "Discovery of the first Asian plethodontid salamander." Six zoologists from around the globe, including two from Korea, authored the peer-reviewed journal article.

Until now, it was thought the salamander family Plethodontidae — which resemble lizards but are lungless and known for their long tails —lived only in the Americas and in remote parts of Western Europe.

Yet on a weekend field trip in April 2003, Karsen turned up 10 members of the very same salamander family thriving under flakes of limestone on steep slopes inside a southwestern Korean forest.

"It's a giant discovery," acknowledges Brandon. "It's absolutely amazing. I was taught plethodontid salamanders occurred only in the New World, except for parts of Italy and France — and that's been gospel until now and it's been a real puzzle trying to figure out how they got to the Old World."

DNA analysis proves the Korean salamanders, though they resemble their New World cousins, are indeed a different species unto themselves. About five-inches long from nose to tail tip, they're robust, dark reddish brown with silvery dots, flecks and a dorsal stripe.

Karsen's discovery suggests 200 million years ago these amphibians may have occupied all of the northern continent Laurasia, before it drifted into separate continents surrounded by oceans.

These seldom-seen creatures — which prefer to hide during the day and come out at night to feed — have survived and gone undetected in Asia while their relatives everywhere else in the Old World, except Italy and France, died out, Brandon surmises.

"So this is a big discovery in the small world of herpetology and in the larger world of biogeography," Brandon says.

He's thrilled Karsen — the ultimate field biologist — is getting credit for finding what will commonly be called the Korean Crevice Salamander, or Ikkee dorongyong in Korean.

A "herper" by hobby, the thirty-something Karsen and his wife Pelesia are dorm parents to 30 boarding school students at the Taejon Christian International School in southwest Korea.

Karesen escapes the city of skyscrapers and 1.5 million residents to hunt for amphibians and reptiles in his free time.

"On weekends he likes to go out and turn over rocks and see what's there," recalls Brandon. "He did it while he was a student here and he'll do it no matter where he is.

"We're naming this new species after him," says Brandon.

Now, zoologists will add the new species Karsenia koreana — honoring Karsen and the Korean Peninsula the salamanders call home — to the tree of life.

A 1992 graduate of SIUC, Karsen created a customized special major that included a broad range of science and general education courses.

He lived to hunt rare amphibians and reptiles, remembers Brandon, who formerly helped oversee a University collection of 300,000 fish, amphibians and reptiles, one of the largest such assemblage in the Midwest.

"He would come into our lab fairly frequently to find out if there was a rare species in Southern Illinois we'd like to have, and he'd go find them. He was very good at finding things. So I'm sure he's elated over this" latest find, Brandon says.

"But humility is a virtue, so I'm sure Steve's shrugging off the fame," he adds.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activity is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.