I know I know… you think your mommy is the best in the world! She surely is, but believe me or not, she’s in good company! There are lungless cave salamanders which can protect their eggs against fungi, bacteria and predators by standing, fighting and starving for no less than 9 months.
These amazing mothers belong to the genus Hydromantes (formerly called Speleomantes) living in Europe, mainly inside Italian borders. I had the chance to follow the entire development of various clutches kept in controlled conditions into a cave-lab of the University of Genoa. The pregnant females were put into glass surrounded environments made of gypsum, with a completely open top, so prey availability and humidity where almost the same of the other parts of the cave (and of course, their health was constantly monitored). Over the terrarium there was a infrared camera, which permitted 24h recordings of the female’s activity.
It was already known that females of this genus, as well as other Plethodontid salamanders, care about the eggs, but the researchers wanted to know how deep this bond is.
At first they discovered that removing the mother from the eggs led to complete loss because of fungi and bacteria infections of the eggs. The mother’s presence, with her toxic substances on her skin, protects the eggs from molds and infections. A good first score to mommy!
But it wasn’t all about H. strinatii, this is the name of the species you see in the pictures below.
She also is a active defender of her eggs, which chases, bite and even maul possibile eggs eaters, like other females or even aggressive males. What a super mother… But it’s not all.
Amphibians are not commonly known to defend their spawn even after the eggs hatch, but in this case the mother’s work doesn’t stop at that stage. She will keep the ground, defending her tiny replicas for days after they emerge from the eggs and climb on the mother’s back in search of protection. It’s even probable that this phase is of major priority for them, because the close contact with the adult will pass them the skin symbiotic bacteria which happens to be a vital microbiome to build against parasitic fungi (if you want, here’s a good reading about this topic).
During all this period the female amost starves, with almost no feeding except some few insects that could be passing very close to her. More than nine months passed into a crevice, with just a few snacks, battling against micro and macro dangers, all for her next generation. You thought to have a great mom, isn’t it?
Many thanks to Prof. Sebastiano Salvidio and Fabrizio Oneto for giving me a bunch of precious minutes together with their research animals. Your work is awesome my friends!
For more in depth information about the research work involved, just click here: http://www.cesbin.it/progetti/biospeleologia.html