The Rundown
9:53 pm
Sun April 20, 2014

Health & Science Rundown: Salamanders And The Delicate Balance

The humble salamander kicks off this week’s summary of science, health and environmental news.

The fire salamander wasn't a part of any of the studies mentioned in this article. But it's very photogenic.
The fire salamander wasn't a part of any of the studies mentioned in this article. But it's very photogenic.
Credit (Flickr/William Warby)

Actually, the salamander may not be so humble. Or at least, not woodland salamanders. It turns out, those little critters are hugely helpful in decreasing the amount of carbon gas released into the atmosphere. And they do it because they are very good eaters.

Specifically, they eat a lot of ants, flies and beetle larvae. The majority of their prey are notorious leaf-shredders. The New York Times wrote about the salamanders and their appetites in a summary of some academic research from the U.S. Forest Service.  According to the article, the leaf shredders leave behind leaf litter from deciduous trees. The litter releases on average 47.5 percent carbon into the atmosphere. When the salamanders eat the little leaf-shredders, the carbon isn’t released into the atmosphere. Instead the leaves disintegrate into the earth and help fertilize the soil.

“The authors [of the study] calculate that woodland salamanders at the density in their study would send 179 pounds of carbon per acre of forest down into the soil, rather than up into the atmosphere. Extrapolated to the huge numbers of woodland salamanders and other predators working in the leaf litter of forests around the world, that is enough to affect global climate.” 

The authors of the study call the little salamanders the “vacuum cleaners of the forest floor” and point out that the critters are an example of how delicate the food web can be.

From forests to golf course

While the woodland salamanders are doing their part to counteract global warming, the University of Missouri released a study that indicates that golf courses might be doing their part to protect the salamander.

Actually, the University of Missouri study focuses on a different kind of salamander altogether: stream salamanders.

The researchers studied 10 golf courses in the southern Appalachian region of western North Carolina to see what impact golf courses are having on the ecosystem (although it is one wag’s opinion that they were just as eager to check out the golf courses for recreational purposes, but they don’t mention that in the paper).

The general assumption is that golf courses are bad for the environment. After all, golf courses are cleared of natural vegetation and the fairways are so green and weed-free. It’s easy to assume that golf course managers use a lot of herbicide, insecticides and pesticides to maintain their pristine turf. And when they use all that "whatever-icides," all the poisons get into the soil and groundwater and end up negatively impacting life downstream.

But those assumptions are wrong, according to the study. In a press release from the university, lead researcher professor Ray Semlitsch said:

“Surprisingly, we found no change or reduction in the abundance or diversity of salamanders downstream, which is where we expected to find chemical runoff from the upkeep and maintenance of the courses,” Semlitsch said. “Golf courses have an environmental impact when they go in and clear an area; however, because of improved management techniques, we’re seeing no signs of chemical effects around these courses. It implies that the turf science industry is doing a great job at utilizing fairway design techniques, plants that reduce chemicals found in the soil, and other methods to ensure that biodiversity succeeds on the course.”

The question left is how many golf courses are actually using these “improved management techniques.” Apparently, the researchers recommend that golf courses include streams with leaf litter, sticks and twigs to improve the natural habitat for a variety of species that live near the golf courses.  The study was funded, in part, by the U.S. Golf Association.

By the way, when it comes to yet another kind of salamander, the Ozark hellbenders, our own Veronique LaCapra has been covering efforts to protect the two-foot-long, slimy river-dweller.  Here is an article about the St. Louis Zoo’s salamander honeymoon resort that is working to increase salamander reproduction.

Health-care cutbacks

We’ve reported on the variety of ways Missouri’s opting out of expanding Medicaid, as required by the Affordable Care Act, is affecting health care in our region -- from the closure of ConnectCare to the challenges low-income Missourians face compared to neighboring Illinois

But last week, another shoe dropped. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that BJC HealthCare, the St. Louis-based behemoth of health-care providers is cutting back on its charity care. Specifically, BJC is lowering the eligibility for financial assistance from 400 percent of the federal poverty rate to 300 percent.  For a family of four, the federal poverty level is defined as an annual income of $23,850.

BJC is lowering the top level of eligibility for charity care.
BJC is lowering the top level of eligibility for charity care.
Credit (via Wikimedia Commons/Bluelion)

The reason? It's "in response to the Affordable Care Act and the requirement that most Americans should go to the marketplace and buy insurance, knowing that there are subsidies available to low-income people,” the article said.

The implication being that if you are making 300 percent of the federal poverty level, you probably qualify for subsidies to help you pay for insurance from the insurance marketplace.  BJC has been grappling with its own budget issues, so cutting off those people who theoretically can now afford health insurance isn’t as hard-hearted as it sounds on the surface.  

Meanwhile, people who practice medicine are increasingly a very miserable bunch. The Daily Beast reports that by the end of this year, an estimated 300 physicians will have committed suicide. Specifically, it’s the primary-care physicians who are most unhappy, not the dermatologists or ophthalmologists of the world.

The article places the reason for the malaise squarely on the shoulders of insurance companies. It’s not a new argument, but it’s an interesting read because now, under ACA, more people are covered by insurance than ever which gives the insurance companies that much more power to dictate what constitutes a “productive” doctor.

Wind in my cell phone

Finally, on a lighter – or should I say – windier note, a Minnesota research firm called Skajaquoda (don’t ask me how that’s pronounced) has come up with a portable wind turbine called Trinity.

It’s only 12 inches tall when it’s folded up and can fit in your purse or backpack. It opens up to 23 inches and stands on aluminium tripod legs. The website Grist reports that that Skajaquoda has a kick-starter campaign to raise $50,000 to get Trinity going.  You can be the proud owner of a Trinity by contributing $249 to the campaign.

If you’re wondering what the little turbine can do, well, it can charge your cell phone. That’s useful when you’re out camping trying to get away from it all. But you still need your cell phone to keep in touch with it all.