The Curious Case of the Cave Salamander
by Gwen C. Katz
Kira swept into the kitchen in a yellow sundress and cherry lip gloss, brandishing their phone. “The good news is you’re famous. The bad news is the headline will grind your gears.”
“And good morning to you too, Kira,” said Jen, acting casual to cover how much she wanted to grab Kira’s phone and read the headline. “You’re looking cute.”
“I always look cute,” said Kira.
“Then it’s ipso facto true today. What are the damages?” asked Jen. She sat at the kitchen table in her sweatpants, eating breakfast with Kira’s daughter Madison. As Kira set their phone down among the bowls and cereal boxes, Jen couldn’t suppress a grin. A quote in The New York Times was a big deal.
The headline read “Northwestern University Research Team Discovers New Species of Cave Salamander.”
“Predictable,” said Jen, skimming the story. “And here they say it’s a new kind of axolotl! I specifically told them it resembled an axolotl. We don’t even know if they’re related. Will no one ever hire a competent science journalist?”
“If they do, point them my way. I’ve got nothing lined up after I finish my oak borer story. The freelance life is not for the faint of heart,” said Kira.
Madison set down her spoon and asked, “What’s so bad about that headline?”
Whenever you forgot that the eight-year-old was listening, she reminded you that she was. Jen explained, “It’s new to us. But the people who live there have known about it for thousands of years. They have their own name for it: ostolotl.”
“So what should it say?” asked Madison.
Jen considered. “How about ‘Cave Salamander Discovers Northwestern Research Team?’”
Madison giggled and returned to her breakfast.
To Kira, Jen said, “Is this why my phone has been going off like a Geiger counter at Chernobyl all morning?”
“What’s Chernobyl?” asked Madison.
“Awful nuclear meltdown. If you went there, you’d get radiation poisoning and probably grow a second head.” Jen made a scary face.
“And yes, the story’s been making a real splash,” said Kira. “The internet loves you.”
“Oh, no,” said Jen, pouring milk on her cereal. “The internet loves the ostolotl.”
The internet did indeed love the ostolotl. The six-inch salamander had enormous round eyes, a mouth like a puppy, fluorescent blue stripes, and fluffy gills sprouting from the sides of its face. There was fan art. There were uwu ostolotl memes. By the time Pseudonecturus ostolotli was formally described, there was a movie in the works.
“You’re a celebrity,” said Jen, looking into the tank that housed the lone ostolotl they’d collected for study. “We should charge admission. It would be the end of our funding troubles.”
“That Full Throttle Ostolotl movie gets funding but we can’t get grant money,” said Enrique, Jen’s dour, kohl-eyed graduate student.
“What can I say? The world has an insatiable desire for cartoons about motorcycle-riding amphibians,” said Jen. “If you could copyright a lifeform, I’d be a millionaire.”
“We’ve got bigger problems than how to monetize our lab animals,” said Enrique as he pipetted proteins into the wells of an electrophoresis gel. “The Mexican envoy called. Ecotourism around the cave is becoming a problem, and they caught two more poachers. Those things are a hot commodity in the exotic pet market.”
“How are poachers even getting into the cave? It’s submerged.”
“Divers, I guess. Same as us. Worth it at the prices they go for.”
“I describe a species and instantly it’s on the brink of extinction.”
“That’s herpetology,” said Enrique. He flipped on the current. “You have to be a masochist to go into a field where we lose dozens of species every year.”
Jen pulled up a stool and sat down to watch the gel run. She said, “It would significantly improve my day if you told me the Illumina sequencing worked.”
Enrique shook his head. “Illumina is a bust. Its genome is too big. We’ll have to use a different method.”
“Get on that,” said Jen. “Unless we plan to fund this lab on Patreon, we need to get some non-meme-based science done.”
“Lizard only has one Z,” said Madison, sulking in the back seat in leggings and Converse. “How am I supposed to know that? Stupid spelling test.”
“I’ll help you study,” said Jen.
“You’re too hard. I’m not smart like you. I want Muddy.” The mashup of “mommy” and “daddy” was her name for Kira.
“They’re still out researching their oak borer story. They’ll be home soon.”
“I don’t care about their stupid beetle story. I wish I was at Dad’s house. They’re so mean for making us leave.”
Kira had explained many times, but Madison kept asking. Jen tried to think of how to put it. “They’re not mean. It was what they needed. You can’t love half a person, Madison. You can’t support them when they’re one way and reject them when they’re another.”
“But what about me? No one ever thinks about me!” Madison slammed the door as she got out of the car.
Kids. Jen had never wanted children and had no idea what to do with them, but she’d been shocked by how fast she grew attached to Madison. She would have thrown herself in front of a bus for Kira’s kid, but that didn’t prevent her from constantly feeling like she was constantly saying or doing the wrong thing.
She made boxed macaroni, the only food Madison would eat when Kira wasn’t home, and they ate it at the kitchen table while Madison did her subtraction homework. After a few minutes, she threw her pencil across the table. “I don’t want to do this. I want to help with your salamanders.”
“Genome sequencing is a bit advanced for a third grader,” said Jen. But seeing the girl’s disappointed look, she added, “But there’s a way you can help. The ostolotls are in trouble because people want them as pets. Poachers go into the cave and steal them, and soon they could all be gone. You can tell your friends they shouldn’t keep ostolotls as pets.”
“You have one at work,” said Madison.
The kid didn’t miss a beat. “That’s different. It’s a lab animal, not a pet.”
“Why are you allowed to keep one in a lab but we can’t keep one as a pet?”
“Some animals just don’t belong in your house. Can you understand that?”
“Yeah,” said Madison, sliding off her chair and heading for the room that she and Kira shared, her ponytail swishing behind her. “Like I don’t belong here.”
Jen was surprised how much that hurt.
When Kira’s short-lived marriage had ended three months ago, they couldn’t scrounge up enough money for their own apartment on a freelancer’s uneven income. Jen had been surprised to get a call from her college roommate and even more surprised when Kira asked if she had space for two guests. But it was neither easy nor safe to look for apartments in Kira’s position. Of course Jen said yes.
But moving in together had been rockier than any of them had expected. The easy, half-joking flirtation that had seemed so natural when they were in college didn’t feel quite right now they were both adults with careers and independent lives. And Madison’s presence complicated everything.
Madison was still in a sulk when Jen dropped her off at school the next morning. Jen’s day did not improve when she pulled into the Northwestern parking lot and found a police car waiting.
Her hope that it was just undergrad mischief dissipated when she found a plainclothes police officer in her lab, talking to Enrique.
“The ostolotl was collected legally, I swear,” she blurted before she thought better of it.
“I’m not here to investigate salamander smuggling,” said the officer. He offered her one large hand. “There’s been an incident at the YMCA. We need your expertise.”
“My expertise? I study amphibians.”
“It’s hard to explain. You’d better come see it for yourself.”
Jen hoped that none of her students saw her following the police car out of the parking lot. At least the officer didn’t use the siren. They drove past billboards of motorcycle-riding salamanders and others proclaiming REGAIN YOUR YOUTH WITH ZYKATEL! before arriving at the YMCA. Police cars surrounded it, their lights flashing red and blue.
Jen felt a twinge of guilt as they passed leg presses and ellipticals she hadn’t used in months.
Barricade tape blocked off the basement stairs. They passed a couple of forensic scientists wearing blue gloves. On the drive Jen had half hoped that the whole thing was an elaborate prank, but that possibility seemed more and more remote.
The basement was a mess. An inch of standing water covered the floor. The boiler was torn open, and a gaping hole where the drain had been looked straight into the sewer.
In the middle of it all lay the body.
It belonged to a middle-aged man in a security guard’s uniform. He held a discharged Taser in one hand. His chest was crushed like a soda can. Lacerations covered his face and throat.
Jen fought down the bile that rose in her throat. “What happened?”
“He was doing the rounds at night. Radioed in to say that he heard some kind of disturbance in the boiler room. When they didn’t hear anything more from him, they went to check it out. This is what they found.”
“A disturbance,” said Jen. “What kind of disturbance?”
The officer hesitated. “Something big moving around. He thought it sounded like an animal … and he heard a sound like a baby fussing.”
Jen looked around. It was hard to believe that anything that could do so much damage could make such a delicate sound.
“So what do you think?” asked the officer. “What could have done this? An alligator?”
Jen couldn’t take her eyes off the body. “Nothing,” she said. “No animal could do this. It had to be people. Someone with a sledgehammer. Why, I don’t know.”
The officer handed her a small glass vial. “Would people have left this all over everything?”
Jen raised the vial to the basement’s harsh fluorescent light. It contained a clear, viscous substance. She realized that the body wasn’t just wet—it was covered in the same slime.
“Forensics is studying it. They have no idea what it is. Any insight that your lab could provide would be appreciated.” As they left the basement, the officer added, “And until we have some answers, not a word to anyone.”
At the airport, Kira was looking business chic, in slacks and a buttoned shirt with their hair smoothed back. Madison jumped out of the car and threw her arms around them.
“Hey, Kira. How are the beetles?” asked Jen as Kira threw their suitcase in the back of the car.
“Awful. They’re decimating the California woodlands. Nothing seems to stop them.” They rubbed their neck. “I’m so sore! Traveling was easy when I was 20. Maybe I should try Zykatel.”
“You know that stuff does nothing,” said Jen. “It’s an iodine supplement your body can’t metabolize. An expensive placebo.”
“Don’t knock placebos,” said Kira. “They’ve been proven to be as effective as drugs in clinical trials.”
Madison tugged Kira’s arm. “Look at this!” She grinned wide and wiggled her loose tooth with her tongue.
“Gross!” said Jen.
Madison stuck out her bottom lip. “You spend all day touching slimy things.”
“Slime is important to amphibians,” said Jen. “It protects them. Their skin is delicate. Like your eyeball. You know how it feels when you get soap in your eye? That’s why we never dump chemicals down the drain. And it’s not freaky like wiggly teeth.”
“Can’t grow up without losing teeth,” said Kira as they buckled Madison’s seatbelt. “We can’t all stay babies forever like your ostolotls.”
“Ostolotls never grow up?” asked Madison curiously.
“Nope,” said Kira. “They’re babies until the day they die.”
“We call it neoteny. They don’t produce the thyroid hormone that induces metamorphosis, so unlike other amphibians, they never…” Jen trailed off when she saw that she’d lost Madison’s attention.
“I’ve got a surprise for you too,” said Kira. They handed Madison a trio of movie tickets.
Madison squealed and clapped her hands. “Full Throttle Ostolotl!”
They watched the movie (the motorcycle-riding salamander shocked everyone by winning despite the odds) and sat around afterwards in the food court eating nachos.
“That was the best movie ever,” said Madison. “Did you guys like it?”
“Yes, but it makes me sad,” said Jen. “Whenever a movie like this comes out, everyone wants the animal as a pet. So more poachers are going to steal more of them.”
“But if people love them, they’ll want to save them,” Madison offered.
Jen helped herself to another cheese-loaded chip. “People don’t always take care of the things they love.”
Madison was poking around on Kira’s phone. Kira cuffed her lightly on the shoulder. “I take you to a movie and you spend the whole time on my phone. What’s so exciting on YouTube, anyway?”
“Monster attack,” said Madison.
“What?” said Jen, leaning over to look at the phone. Had word of the YMCA incident gotten out?
“Yeah, see?” Madison restarted the video. A woman was walking her dog along the Chicago River. A ripple in the water and then, almost too fast to see, a huge dark shape leapt out in a wave of spray, caught the woman by the arm, and dragged her under with a flick of its long, finned tail. The video ended in a blur of motion as the person taking the video ran to help.
“Awesome,” said Madison in an awed whisper.
“Come on, you’re too old to fall for that sort of thing,” said Kira. “It’s obviously fake.”
Jen stared at the blurry freeze frame. A lump formed in her throat. “No, I don’t think it is.”
The video spiked to a million and a half views in eight hours. People wanted the river dredged. Reports poured in of missing people, dogs, cats—everyone thought the monster was responsible. News of the YMCA incident leaked. It didn’t take the internet long to remember that the Chicago River was connected to the Shipping Canal, into which the sewers emptied. People were convinced that the monster might pop out of any toilet in Chicago. And then reports began pouring in from other cities. Some were obvious hoaxes, but some were unnervingly plausible.
“They’re calling her Espie,” said Enrique. He was pipetting ostolotl DNA into vials while Jen skimmed her email for anything that wasn’t about monster attacks. “Because they saw her by River Esplanade Park.”
“Why do people always give cryptids cute names? And why are they always female?” Jen dragged everything in her inbox unceremoniously to the trash.
“Don’t ask me. Ask the Gender Studies department. Oh, and the Department of Natural Resources called.”
“Tell them I’m not a monster hunter.”
“That’s not what they called about. It’s about the ostolotls. They’ve had reports of unwanted pets getting flushed down the drain and dumped in the river. They want to know if they could be invasive.”
“Endangered and invasive. Just my luck,” grumbled Jen as she joined Enrique at the lab bench. “Well, the winter freeze should kill them.”
“Here, sure, but they’re showing up as pets everywhere. They could be the next thing to overrun the Everglades.”
“Just for once I’d like to not assume the absolute worst will happen,” said Jen. “Did you have a chance to analyze that sample I left you?”
“I threw it in the mass spectrometer. It’s mostly mucus proteins, but I found something weird: It’s loaded with tetrodotoxin. Pufferfish poison. Was that sample from some bad seafood?”
Jen’s eyes widened. “It’s also found in toads and salamanders—including our ostolotl.” Amphibian poison on an animal big enough to crush a human being. Another impossibility.
The afternoon was all glassware and machinery. The ostolotl in the tank blinked placidly while they worked. It seemed content enough. Jen was glad it couldn’t understand how badly she had disrupted its life.
When she checked her phone, she found a text from Kira. “Catch the first flight to Miami. Got a scoop you won’t want to miss.”
“A local angler caught something he didn’t expect. Luckily one of his buddies had a rifle,” said Kira. “Meet your Espie.”
The creature was as long as a pickup truck. A knobby spade-shaped head with a wide, toothy mouth took up a third of its length. Its thick body was curved into an S shape, ending in a tail with a tapered fin. Its sprawling limbs seemed too short and stubby for its body.
“Want to tell me what it is before I go to press calling it an unidentified creature and get a bunch of conspiracy theorists in my mentions?” asked Kira. They were sporting a James Dean look this time, with tousled hair and a bomber jacket.
“It’s a capitosaur,” said Jen, unable to believe she was saying those words.
“Some kind of long-lost dinosaur? Madison’s going to be so mad she’s at her father’s house.”
“Not a dinosaur. It’s an amphibian. These things died out just as dinosaurs were first emerging. It’s impossible for it to be here, and yet…” Jen gestured to the creature before her.
“It’s not impossible,” said Kira. “Scientists thought coelacanths had been extinct for 60 million years. They were wrong about that.”
“Hiding in the depths of the ocean is one thing. Two separate individuals hiding in two major cities? No way.”
“Three individuals,” said Kira.
“There’s no reason to think that the YMCA incident was the same individual as the one in the Chicago River.”
That hadn’t occurred to Jen, but she realized Kira was right.
“So what are we looking at?” asked Kira.
“I don’t know,” Jen admitted. “It can’t be genetically engineered—the technology simply doesn’t exist. It’s not a hoax. It’s like it appeared out of nowhere.”
“‘Animal resembling extinct giant amphibian appears in Miami.’” Kira jotted a note on their phone. “Well, my career is made. How about yours?”
“There was a dinosaur and you didn’t let me come? I hate you! I hate you both!” Madison slammed her pencil into the table with graphite-shattering force.
“Capitosaur,” Jen corrected.
“Sweetie, I can’t bring you along when I travel for work. You’d miss too much school,” said Kira. They tried to hug Madison, but the little girl wriggled away.
“That’s what you always say. You always have to leave. Everyone does. Just like Jen’s going to make us leave!” She stormed into her and Kira’s room and slammed the door. Reopening it a crack, she added, “I lost my tooth and I didn’t even get to show you!”
Silence filled the apartment. Kira gave Jen an apologetic look.
Jen sat on the floor by the bedroom door and said quietly, “Madison. I know the way the three of us came together wasn’t the usual way. Sometimes life gives you things you didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to find that salamander in that underwater cave. But no matter how it came together, a family is a family.”
The door reopened a hair.
“I know you’ve been through a lot,” said Jen. “I know it must feel like everything stable has been pulled out from under you. But you know what? Your Muddy and I have been through a lot too. There was this one time in college when they got drunk and…” Jen cracked a smile. “Actually, never mind. I’ll tell you that one when you’re older. The point is, there’s nothing they could do that could make me leave them. Or you either..”
Half of Madison’s face came peering through the crack in the door. “Not ever?”
Madison emerged and wrapped her arms around Jen’s waist.
Kira put on the new Full Throttle Ostolotl Netflix show and the three of them watched it with a bowl of popcorn sprinkled with the cheese powder, Kira’s favorite recipe from college.
When Madison was comfortably asleep between them, Kira asked Jen, “Did you mean that? About never making us leave?”
“I wouldn’t lie to a kid.”
“Oh man, you could never be a parent. I lie to Madison all the time. I told her a fairy would take her tooth. I said there wasn’t any more popcorn when I have two more bags in the back of the pantry.” She put a handful of popcorn in her mouth and crunched it.
“Maybe not a parent,” said Jen. “How about a fun aunt?”
“Whatever you like. I was never big on labels anyway.”
Kira put their head on Jen’s shoulder and, even though Madison was asleep, they started the next episode.
As the credits rolled, Kira said, “Gah, my leg’s asleep You’ll have to help me get up. When did I get so old? I even tried Zykatel, but it didn’t help.”
“Of course not. It’s specifically formulated so the human body can’t absorb it. A dose of 800 times your daily value of iodine would kill you otherwise. It just comes out in your pee…”
As Jen spoke, something clicked in her mind.
“You said ‘pee’ and got a look like Moses receiving the commandments,” said Kira. “That’s a bit weird.”
“Kira,” asked Jen. “How many people take Zykatel every day?”
“Two point eight million. I did a piece on it. God, I hate health reporting.”
“That’s 2.2 billion doses of iodine every day. Going into sewer systems all over America.”
“So I know where the capitosaurs are coming from.”
Amid the terror over Espie the river monster, it wasn’t hard to convince Northwestern to close their pool. The pool had to be emptied, refilled with unchlorinated water, and adapted into a giant, murky fish tank with a silty bottom and plants. They stocked it with perch and bluegill. A pair of surveillance cameras kept watch over the whole setup.
All for a six-inch salamander.
The ostolotl seemed perfectly happy sitting on the bottom of the shallow end, its gills waving as Jen poured crushed Zykatel tablets into the water. The powder stained the water pink.
She locked the pool doors and whispered, “Good night, little guy.”
She brought Kira the next day. A good experiment called for a good science journalist. Before she opened the door, Jen handed Kira a tranquilizer rifle she’d acquired from Natural Resources while she herself carried a bucket of raw herring.
The muddy water was deceptively still. No ripple of fish.
“‘The fishpond, complete with reeds and duckweed, is an incongruous sight amid the diving boards and antiseptic white tiles,’” Kira muttered to herself, swiping her thumb across her phone keyboard. “So what am I here to see? Because you didn’t bring me just to witness your weird aquaculture experiment.”
Jen threw a fish toward the water.
The creature launched itself into the air, breaking the surface with a tremendous splash. Big blunt head. Stubby legs. Rows of teeth.
Kira dropped their phone.
“How?” was all they could say.
“It grew up,” said Jen. “Ostolotls remain in juvenile form their entire lives. But their DNA still contains the blueprint for their adult form—they simply never reach it. Iodine triggers their thyroid to release the hormone that causes metamorphosis. Humans can’t metabolize Zykatel, but apparently amphibians can. It appears ostolotls are capitosaurs in their larval form.”
Kira whistled. “Well. Humans had a good run.”
“Is that one a capitosaur?”
“That’s a protoceratops.”
“Is that one a capitosaur?”
“That’s a maiasaura.”
“Is that one a capitosaur?”
“Okay, now I know you’re messing with me. That’s Sue. The T. rex.”
Jen smiled as Madison explored the fossil skeletons, Kira in tow. A day at the Field Museum seemed oddly normal in a world inhabited by giant predatory amphibians, but Kira said they deserved a reward. The captive capitosaur, now ensconced at the aquarium for further study, had vaulted Jen and her lab to instant fame. Kira had won a National Journalism Award and was being bombarded with offers.
Their phone buzzed again and they turned it off. “If The Atlantic wants me, they can get in touch on Monday.”
Jen looked up at the rust-brown T. rex skeleton towering above her. “I bet a week ago you wouldn’t have guessed that you’d be turning down story requests.”
“There are a lot of things I wouldn’t have guessed a week ago.” They laced their slender fingers through Jen’s. Today they were wearing blue eyeshadow and a belted mermaid-hem coat, and they smelled faintly of bergamot perfume. Jen leaned her head on their shoulder as they watched Madison read the interpretive signs.
“Eryops,” Madison read, sounding the name out carefully. “It’s an amphibian! Like a capitosaur!”
“Nice find! Maybe you’ll be a herpetologist someday too,” said Kira. To Jen, they said, “How many of them are out there, do you think? Ten? A hundred? A thousand?”
“I don’t know,” Jen admitted. “Pulling Zykatel from the shelves should curb them, but there are a lot of other ways for iodine to get into the water system. We could be looking at a new naturalized species.”
Her eyes wandered over a mural of a Permian swamp. Capitosaurs had once stalked through those primeval shallows, the kings of their domain until crocodiles and dimetrodons edged them out. Such mighty beasts forced to shrink and retreat into a submerged cave in Mexico for two hundred million years.
It was a long time to wait for a drop of iodine.
Gwen C. Katz is an author, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, tells the story of the all-female Russian bomber regiment that the Nazis called "Night Witches."
Fiction by Gwen C. Katz:
"The Curious Case of the Cave Salamander" February 2021