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Boston–Blue spotted salamander specimens pulled from the Hockomock Swamp are an extremely rare, genetically pure population, according to a new independent study. This discovery will likely afford the amphibians stronger protection under state endangered species law and further complicate plans by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to route a new rail line through the Hockomock.

The latest genetic studies demonstrate blue-spotted salamanders in the Hockomock are not hybridized with other salamander species. The population is one of only five such distinct populations in New York and New England, a status that will likely force a designation of “endangered” or “threatened” under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. Currently, the salamanders are a designated “species of special concern” under the law.

MBTA is proposing to construct a controversial train line between Boston and the communities of Fall River and New Bedford. MBTA’s preferred route would bisect the Hockomock Swamp, destroying salamander’s habitat. An endangered or threatened listing for the salamander would be yet another setback for MBTA’s plan which, in the last week has also drawn opposition from:

The state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program which indicated, in a strongly-worded letter issued last week, that proposed rail line does would not meet criteria for obtaining environmental permits;

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which last week called MBTA’s analysis “deficient,” cite “significant, yet avoidable impacts to a regionally significant environmental resource;” and

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) who released a white paper written by public agency employees blasting the economic as well as the environmental underpinnings of the project.

In a related development, 48 blue spotted salamander bodies, inadvertently killed during a botched study and then misplaced for months by MBTA consultants, turned up this week. The specimens finally arrived at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology a full year after MBTA claims to have sent them. Unfortunately, the specimens arrived too late to for additional genetic tests to make it into the public record before the close of the MBTA comment period.

“Thank goodness for the independent studies,” stated New England PEER director Kyla Bennett, a biologist formerly with EPA.”If we relied on MBTA’s research, we would never have known that the Hockomock salamanders were an extremely rare, distinct species.”

Environmental Affairs Secretary Robert Durand is expected to decide the fate of the rail project this week.##

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