Desmognathus-monticola - salamander close-up

Desmognathus monticola, 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.

Plethodon amplus salamander.

Plethodon amplus, photo credit Tom Ward.

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 takes a photo of a salamander to identify it.

Cici takes a pic of salamander to identify it, photo credit Sue Wasserman.

CiCi Wood, the AmeriCorps Project Conserve Communications and Community Engagement member for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, was excited to join Sue and her students for one of their programs to share the 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.”

Salamanders in the Swannanoa Mountains

Desmognathus-quadramaculatus - salamander

Desmognathus quadramaculatus, photo credit Tom Ward.

High up in the Swannanoa Mountains, Tom Ward enjoys a special appreciation for his family’s permanently conserved land and the biological diversity it supports.

“My great-grandfather built a cabin on the property 95 years ago, and the property has been in my family ever since,” recalls Tom. His family wanted to ensure that this special place was never developed, so they worked with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) to permanently protect 114 acres with a conservation easement in 2011. A mile and half of stream corridor through the property creates excellent habitat for salamanders. With a Masters degree in biology, Tom has a particular interest in documenting species on the property and has reported his findings to the NC Natural Heritage Program, contributing to citizen science in the state. So far he has identified 10 species of salamander on the family’s protected land.

Plethodon amplus - salamander

Plethodon amplus, photo by Tom Ward.

“With North Carolina being the center of biodiversity for salamanders, it is a great place to study salamanders,” says Tom. “Amphibians are very sensitive to environmental changes, so salamanders are a good indicator species for the health of the mountain.”

Desmognathus carolinensis salamander

Desmognathus carolinensis, photo credit Tom Ward.

Last summer, Tom spent time hiking his family’s property at night, and discovered it was a wonderful time to photograph salamanders. “They’re nocturnal creatures, so night is a time you can find them out and about in their natural habitat,” he says. Tom described the salamander species he has documented: “The most aquatic one, which you hardly ever find out of the creek, is Desmognathus quadramaculatus – the black-bellied salamander. Also in the creek we find the seal salamander (Desmognathus mondicola) and spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus).”

“A little further out you may find some Carolina mountain dusky salamanders (Desmognathus carolinensis), and the eft stage of the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) can be found all over, especially after a good rain. We have three species of plethodon: the Blue Ridge gray-cheeked salamander (Plethodon amplus), which has a limited range; the white-spotted slimy salamanders (plethodon cylindraceus), which are pretty ubiquitous in the upland parts of the mountain; and the Yonahlosseee salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee), which can be found among boulder fields and rock outcroppings. The Blue Ridge two-lined salamander (Eurycea wilderae) gets out and about in the mountain in the summer and you don’t see it as much, but in October it comes back to the creek to breed. The red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) we’ve found only a few times – it prefers muddy areas.”