At the bottom of a reservoir at an abandoned Army base, local researchers just may have found a fountain of youth.

Living in a cement holding pond at Badger Army Ammunition Plant are adult tiger salamanders that still look like juveniles – they age, but don’t undergo metamorphosis. A University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County research project has identified one key factor in this unusual kink in the maturation process, and the student and teacher behind the discovery hope to find even more answers.

A major factor in the salamanders maintaining their youthful characteristics is water depth, UW-BSC graduate Tara Juresh found. Lowering the water level in the habitat of neotenic salamanders – adults who still look like juveniles – makes them more likely to metamorphose and at last look their age, with smaller heads, no gills and no tail fin.

Determining how an adult creature can maintain a larval appearance could tell us a lot about the aging and maturation processes, and could even have implications for humans. Think of these salamanders as 50-year-old humans who look 20 – the amphibian equivalent of Dick Clark.

Tara Juresh poses with the tanks in which the salamanders are held.

UW-BSC graduate Tara Juresh poses with the tanks in which the salamanders are held.

“These little guys hold a lot of answers of what could be,” Juresh said. “That could have a biomedical application.”

Juresh graduated from UW-BSC in May, taking her studies and her salamander research to Winona State University in Minnesota. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and hopes one day to earn a doctorate in genetics.

She was introduced to the salamander research project by Dr. Noah Anderson, assistant professor of biology at UW-BSC. Anderson learned of the salamanders while helping the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources inventory the species inhabiting Badger Army Ammunition Plant. The DNR couldn’t figure out how to relocate the salamanders without making them go through metamorphosis, as they matured when placed in an aquarium.

Temperature was surmised to be the key factor, but Anderson suspected water depth was the true catalyst. What he needed was someone to do the day-to-day observation it would take to find out. Enter Juresh, who needed a research project to further her studies.

In January, the two began collecting salamanders from what once was a reservoir for municipal water at the plant. It appears salamanders at some point crawled in and, because there was adequate food and an absence of predators, never had a reason to grow up and leave. So perhaps they aren’t as much like Dick Clark as they are a 28-year-old slacker living in his indulgent parents’ basement.

Juresh and Anderson moved the salamanders to 55-gallon drums on campus, which were filled with varying levels of water. Only a few of the salamanders in full barrels metamorphosed, but in the barrels whose water level was dropped, nearly all metamorphosed.

“It was really significant what we found,” Juresh said.

Their work identified water level as a cue for metamorphosis. But the job isn’t done. Other factors, such as the amount of light or water pressure present, may play a role. “At the end, you have more questions than answers,” Anderson said.

Juresh hopes to learn what triggers metamorphosis, analyzing the process at the cellular level. She hopes to publish a paper on her research by Christmas.

Time is critical, with the reservoir slated for demolition this spring as the plant is decommissioned and divided among various governmental entities. But time crunches don’t faze Juresh, a 33-year-old married mother of two teenagers who went back to school after nine years in the work force. The Kendall resident said juggling a hectic schedule is worth pursuing her dream.

“I was something I always wanted to do,” she said of going back to school. “Better late than never.”

What’s a few years’ wait to someone who just may have discovered a fountain of youth? “I want to change something,” Juresh said. “I want to make a difference with genetics.”