Say hello to Arne and Sebastian, the two-headed salamander tadpole that was born last week in a community ecology lab at the University of Haifa, Israel.
Deformities in salamanders have been occasionally observed before, but this case is particularly rare and unusual. Scientists working in the lab have no idea what caused the animal to have two heads, but they speculate that pollution or random mutations could be to blame. Earlier reports mentioned that radiation may be responsible, leading some media outlets to believe that the salamander is radioactive, but it isn’t.
The animal is a Near Eastern fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata), a striking black and yellow amphibian which can be found in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. This species is listed as “near threatened” by the IUCN, although it is locally endangered in Israel. Numbers of this species are dwindling because of human activities such as development, water pollution and water use for irrigation. Many are also killed when they venture onto roadways and are run over by vehicles.
Scientists at the University of Haifa, headed by Professor Leon Blaustein, have been studying these animals for many years now with the ultimate goal of conserving the species. Salamanders also act as an indicator of environmental health as they are particularly sensitive to environmental changes and pollution, so Blaustein’s team has been collecting specimens from various localities and examining them in the lab.
Recently, the scientists collected several pregnant female fire salamanders to give birth in the lab (the eggs develop inside the mother of this species, and she then gives birth to live young), and one of them popped out the two-headed surprise. According to Blaustein, both heads of the tadpole are moving, but only one has been observed snapping up insect larvae.
While it is known that salamanders are sensitive to changes in the environment, trying to pinpoint what could have caused this deformity is extremely difficult. The mother was collected from a fairly polluted breeding site, but that doesn’t necessarily mean pollution is to blame, so we cannot go pointing fingers at humans just yet. “I could speculate,” Bleustein told Live Science, “but it would be pure speculation.”