Scientists discover world’s most adorable (and tiny) salamanders

It’s official. We’ve found the cutest things ever. Earlier this week, researchers named three new salamanders as the smallest four-legged creatures known to science. They can easily fit on a dime, and that’s had some really strange effects on their physiology.

Animals aren’t built to be small, and things can get kinda cramped when you’ve got to pack in a spine, a brain, sex organs, etc. These three new species in the genus Thorius, have some bizarre anatomy as a result of their tiny size.

Thorius papaloae, a species from a montane cloud forest of northern Oaxaca, was described in 2001.

These creatures, like most amphibians, have extremely long tongues that they launch at tiny insects. Their tongues can stretch half the length of the body. But packing something so large into such a small head comes with some… sacrifices. Its brain is pushed back, almost into the salamander’s neck, and some of the bones we’d expect to find in the skull are completely missing.

Photomicrograph of Thorius pennatulus. Bones are stained red and cartilage stained blue. The entire head is 3 mm long.

Even stranger are the salamanders’ sex organs. While many types of tissue can compress or miniaturized without much issue, sex organs have to be above a certain size to function at all. Speaking to Gizmodo, Harvard University biologist and study co-author James Hanken said, “As a result, the gonads occupy a relatively large proportion of the total body volume… in some females, much more than half the volume of the trunk is occupied by yolky eggs inside the oviducts; the rest of the visceral organs are pushed aside.”

The weird anatomy of the Thorius species is fascinating, and maybe a little hilarious, but, of course, these adorable amphibians are in danger. They are disappearing rapidly likely due to the loss of their habitat and climate change. Poisoning from pesticides and the chytrid fungus, responsible for the decline of many other amphibians in South America, are also possible culprits.

Thorius longicaudus, one of three newly described Thorius salamander species.

“There is no simple solution, but there are long-term solutions: lessen and hopefully stop global warming and other climate change, preserve vast tracts of forest, eliminate dangerous pesticides and herbicides,” Hanken Said to Gizmodo.

Historically, environmental groups have tried to use adorable animals as their poster children because they know that people are more likely to donate money to help save pandas than, say, algae — even though the latter is probably a lot more important to its local ecosystem. So I propose that we make these insanely tiny and cute critters the new poster-children of climate change. Maybe then something will get done.

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