Townsend Lab Publishes Two Papers on Cryptic Tropical Salamanders

Posted on 9/26/2017 1:41:41 PM

Research by Department of Biology graduate students and faculty members has revealed new amphibian species and populations. Josiah Townsend and former biology graduate students Alexander Hess, Thomas Firneno, and Michael Itgen have published a pair of studies that expands our understanding of tropical amphibian diversity. Both papers focus on cryptic species of salamanders from Honduras in Central America.

Cryptic species are defined as distinct species that are virtually impossible to distinguish based on their outward appearance, instead relying on genetic analysis to be properly identified. Often, cryptic species represent “hidden” diversity that is concealed due to them being confused with other species. These cryptic species can be overlooked when it comes to understanding the biological importance and conservation needs of an area, putting unrecognized populations at risk of extinction.

Nelson’s moss salamander (Nototriton nelsoni), one of two new species discovered by Townsend. The first paper provided a taxonomic revision of one such cryptic species, a moss salamander of the genus Nototriton. Populations from three different mountain ranges were considered to represent the same species, but Townsend’s evaluation of genetic and morphological variation revealed three distinct species. He named one of the new species Nototriton nelsoni, in honor of preeminent Honduran botanist Cyril Nelson.

The second new species was given the name N. oreadorum, which means “belonging to the Oreads,” in reference to a group of mythological nature deities that inhabit mountains and valleys.  Each of these two new species is known only from a single cloud forest mountaintop, placing them at high risk for extinction.

The second paper uses genetic analyses to reveal a case of sympatry in two cryptic species of mushroom-tongued salamanders from a site in Honduras. At this lowland rainforest site, salamanders from two distinct species were identified, despite being completely indistinguishable from each other based on their appearance. Such cases of co-occurring cryptic species are rare, and make identification of salamanders in the field virtually impossible because of their strong physical similarity.

This second study was led by graduate student Alexander Hess as part of his MS thesis research, in collaboration with two other IUP biology MS students, Thomas Firneno and Michael Itgen, as well as James Nifong, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Florida. All three completed their theses and graduated from IUP in 2016 before moving on to PhD programs across the country; Hess to the University of Tulsa, Firneno to the University of Texas at Arlington, and Itgen to Colorado State University.

These two articles, as well as other publications and information from the Townsend Lab, are available on Josiah Townsend’s website.


Hess, Alexander J., Michael W. Itgen, Thomas J. Firneno, James C. Nifong, and Josiah H. Townsend. 2017. Microsympatry in cryptic lowland salamanders (Caudata: Plethodontidae: Bolitoglossa subgenus Nanotriton) from northwestern Honduras: implications for taxonomy and regional biogeography. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research 55(2): 150–155. 

Townsend, Josiah H. 2016. Taxonomic revision of Nototriton barbouri (Schmidt)(Caudata: Plethodontidae), with description of two new species of moss salamanders from the Cordillera Nombre de Dios, Honduras. Zootaxa 4196(4): 511–528.