A University of Haifa ecology lab that collected wild specimens of an endangered salamander got more than it expected, when one of the salamanders gave birth to an offspring with two heads. The lab also got some unwelcome publicity, when the media began referring to it as the "radioactive" salamander.
The Near Eastern fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) is listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which cites shrinking habitats in Israel, Lebanon and Syria as a cause for their plight. Another likely factor is increasing levels of water pollution in the region. Also, quite a few of them get run over by cars.
Leon Blaustein, who heads the ecology lab, has been conducting research on the species for many years with the goal of helping the nature and parks authorities maintain the existing population and revive populations in danger.
According to researchers at the lab, the salamanders act as a barometer for the general health of the environment. Because they are so sensitive to pollution and environmental changes, they are among the first species to die off.
But, is pollution responsible for the dual-headed salamander? Initially a statement issued by the University of Haifa said that the deformity could have been caused by contaminated water or radiation, which prompted several media outlets to call it the "radioactive salamander."
But Blaustein says radiation definitely isn't the cause for the deformity. Water pollution could be responsible, he says, since the specimens were collected at the Kaukab Springs in the Galilee Mountains, which is one of the more polluted breeding sites for the species. But also, a random mutation or birth defect can't be ruled out. The salamander isn't the only wild animal found with two heads where only one was supposed to grow. In 2013, a fisherman in Florida caught a pregnant shark and found that one of the live fetuses inside her womb had two heads. Another 2013 find in Australia of an "oddly shaped, pale object" turned out to be a stillborn baby ray with two heads. This defect can occur for several reasons, including an embryo that begins to split into twins, but does not complete the process.
In the meantime, the lab is studying the salamander, which has been dubbed "Arne" and "Sebastian" (in honor of two German ecologists with whom the lab collaborates). Both heads move, Blaustein said, but so far, the researchers have seen only one chowing down on a salamander baby's favorite meal: insect larvae.