Urban Fire Salamanders Holding Their Own in Haifa

New survey finds unknown pockets of the garish amphibians in city wadis, giving hope they thrive in secret forest corners

A Middle Eastern Fire Salamander.
יאן ריבק

The urban salamander population of Haifa seems to be holding its own despite the pitiful rains this winter and habitat encroachment. A survey conducted this winter in the wadis of the Mount Carmel ridge, where the northern city of Haifa is perched, counted 27 Middle Eastern Fire Salamanders. In the places also checked last year, the salamander population was almost unchanged (down by one) from the survey carried out in the winter of 2016-2017.

The markings on fire salamanders (Salamandra infraimmaculata), shiny black with yellow spots, are highly individual. Apparently 18 of these individual salamanders had been identified in the past. The others hadn't introduced themselves before.

Happily, this winter the scientists also visited a streambed that hadn't been checked before and found a whopping 62 of the small, garish amphibians.

"This indicates that many more salamanders could be hiding in places we haven't discovered yet. It means there are things we haven't discovered," ecologist Olga Rybak of the University of Haifa told Haaretz.

Being amphibians, salamanders need wet environments. While the fire salamanderlings live in water, the adults can venture further in search of food, even taking up residence in moist pockets under mossy logs, for instance. In the Haifa area specifically, salamanders are under terrific pressure from habitat loss due to human development combined with regional aridification, points out Ohad Schwartz of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

The Mount Carmel range is the southern border of the Middle Eastern fire salamander's range, which spans from Turkey through Iran, Syria and Iraq and Lebanon, to northern Israel.

Given the incessant upheavals in the region and apparent creeping desertification from the Sahel to the Middle East – even though they have extraordinarily long lifetimes, as long as 20-plus years – is the fire salamander at risk? We don't know, Rybak says: "Because this is the Middle East, there isn’t much data or collaboration. Take Syria or Iraq. We can't know the status of the salamander there."

However, the global trend for amphibians in general is in decline. Salamanders too are in decline, and bereft of information from the neighbors, Israel decided to its local population is endangered, too. "We are trying to conserve it in Israel and here it's classified as being at risk. In Israel it's protected," Rybak says.

The Golan Heights and Syria have suffered badly from poor rains in recent years. Being amphibian, salamanders are dependent on moist or wet environments, and she indeed observed fewer salamanders at the Tel Dan nature reserve on Israel’s northern border because of the low rains, Rybak told Haaretz.

Ultimately Israel, too, is short of data on the salamander. "Our survey is only in its second year, and last year's was just basic," Rybak says. "We need to observe population trends over years. If the rains continue to be short, we will see a decline in their numbers and changes in behavior. It's basic. This is the main thing: that these salamander surveys encourage scientific research to see the influence of climate change."

The Salamander Survey is a project of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Yarok Balev nonprofit organization and is sponsored by the University of Haifa.