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Turning Over A Rock: Salamanders and Medicare Fees To Physicians

Posted Apr 13 2014 10:01pm

Posted on | April 10, 2014 |

I always felt there was something important and mystical about salamanders. So it’s not surprising that I opened Richard Conniff’s New York Times article this week titled, “Salamander’s Hefty Role In The Forest” . In the Science section article, Conniff opens with this statement, “If someone asked you to name the top predator in North American forests, you might think of bears, or maybe great horned owls. But here’s another answer to think about: woodland salamanders.”

Drawing from a recently published study in Ecosphere by Hartwell H. Welsh Jr., of the United States Forest Service’s research station in Arcata, CA, and Michael L. Best, at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, CA, the article lays out a few eye catching facts including:

These innocent looking and beautiful creatures lurking in wet leaves and under rocks consume an average 20 ants and 3 to 5 other small leaf shredding invertebrates a day.

The deciduous leaves that these insects favor are 47.5% carbon. Their munching releases this carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Left undisturbed, the leaves house the carbon, in layers of leaves on the forest floor, long enough for it to be reabsorbed into the soil.

In the absence of salamanders, insect leaf shredders shred 13% more leaves than when  these little wiggly creatures are present. Insert them into the ecosystem, and nearly two hundred pounds of extra carbon per acre make it into the soil.

The salamander is an extremely efficient life form, breathing through its skin rather than relying on lungs. As a result, the meager calories provided by these tiny leaf shredders is enough to supply their needs. Not so for birds and mammals.

So here we have another example of the exquisite beauty and complexity, efficiency and necessity of lifeforms that on first glance may seem a luxury, an add on.

In the world of science, humans get the lion size portion of our attention. Discoveries here often lead to products, and products to blockbuster performance. As outlined in part this week with the Medicare physician data release, just how and to what extent and in what manner these discoveries are advantaged by the doctors and their patients is highly variable – and controversial.

But the salamanders labor on unheralded except by young children struggling to turn a rock by a stream in the hopes of possibly catching a brief glimpse of this mystical creature. Without knowing the facts, these children are able to see and sense the linkages and the value of all living things.

That is reassuring.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee

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