Salamanders and Youth Education

Plethodon amplus salamander.

Plethodon amplus, photo credit Tom Ward.

You may have heard that the Southern Appalachian or Blue Ridge Mountains are the “salamander capital of the world.” These brightly colored little living gems capture the interest and imagination of young and old alike. Their prevalence among some of the world’s oldest mountains highlights the remarkable biodiversity of the region and the importance of protecting critical land and water resources — before they are lost forever.

Join us for a look at salamanders – from youth education programs to citizen-science observations recorded and reported by a conservation landowner. The stories, videos, and photos below present a snapshot of the importance of salamanders, tips for safely searching for them, and a look at the diverse species you may find in the mountains of NC and TN.

Learn a little, record your own observations, and join us in engaging with these fascinating amphibians!

Why are salamanders important and why should we care?

Plethodon yonahlosse salamander

Plethodon yonahlosse, photo credit Tom Ward.

Salamanders are extremely sensitive to environmental change; this makes them important bioindicators, particularly of water quality. “Bioindicators” are what we call living organisms that are used to screen the health of an ecosystem, to help assess environmental health and changes taking place in the environment. Salamanders depend on water to live. They hatch from gelatinous eggs and go through a larval stage in the water, breathing through gills. Some may stay in this larval stage forever. All salamanders breathe at least partially through their skin. A healthy population of salamanders can be an indicator of good water quality – which is beneficial for humans, too. There are seven families encompassing 63 species of salamander in NC – and the majority of these can be found in the mountains.

Many salamander species are in decline, due to habitat destruction, pollution, disease, pet trade, climate change, and invasive species. There are more endangered amphibian species than birds or mammals.

What can you do?

Leave salamanders in the wild!

Create habitats in your yard or community if you have access to an outdoor space.

Learn more about the salamanders in your area and share that information with your friends and family.

Contribute to citizen science – report your observations through Herpmapper and iNaturalist.

Searching for salamanders:

·        It’s best to search during periods of rainy weather, around twilight, especially in early spring

·        Generally they like cool, damp/wet areas so look carefully under logs, rocks or leaf clumps

·        Bring a clean, clear container for a viewing area

·        Always put things back where you found them, and do so quickly to prevent stress/illness

·        Make sure your hands are wet and clear of contaminants; wash hands between salamanders. It is best to avoid touching the salamanders directly at all.

Youth Education Program – The Wonder of Water

AmeriCorps Cici Wood leads students on salamander exploration

AmeriCorps member Cici Wood leads students in salamander exploration. Photo credit Sue Wasserman

Last year, the Burnsville Library was selected by the North Carolina Humanities Council to be one of six sites in North Carolina to host “Water/Ways,” a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. This exhibit is meant to connect people to water while exploring its environmental and cultural impact. To accompany this exhibit, freelance writer Sue Wasserman designed a youth environmental education program titled “The Wonder of Water” for students in Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties to learn about and creatively connect with local waterways.

CiCi Wood, SAHC’s Communications and Community Engagement Associate, joined Sue Wasserman and her students for one of their programs to share her love of salamanders. The students learned about the importance of salamanders in maintaining healthy waters, and were even able to see a few salamanders up close!

“Helping students connect with the natural world is one of the most powerful gifts we can give our youth,” says Cici. “Programs like the Wonder of Water are so important for instilling a lifelong passion for nature. My hope is that these kids will grow into lifelong stewards of the Southern Appalachian region and help meet the challenges of protecting these magnificent natural resources for ourselves and for future generations. I feel so lucky to be doing this work alongside the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.”