On October 1st, 2016, I headed out for a week to explore and collect observational records of salamanders in the Southern Appalachian Mountains region. The area is one of the most diverse salamander locales in the world, home to a myriad of endemic species! A true biodiversity ‘hotspot’ for these amphibians!
During my trip I would stop at sites in South-West Virginia, East Tennessee, the South-Western part of North Carolina, North-West Georgia, and North-East Alabama.
My first stop was in Virginia, and it would not be long before my first salamander encounter, a very large Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). This species is part of the lungless salamander family (Plethodontidae). The species gets its common name from the sticky slime it can produce to deter predation. Slimy Salamanders would be common at many of the places I visited. Each one with its own configuration of white speckles and marks. A very beautiful species!
Shortly after this, I came across a low-land seep. In this area both Southern Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea cirrigera) and Blue-Ridge Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea wilderae) were common. Several species of Dusky Salamanders (genus Desmognathus) were also common. This includes a very beautiful Blue-Ridge Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus orestes), with a striking red dorsal stripe. A few Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) were seen in the adjacent woodlands. Although this species can be found back in my native Ontario, I still took some time to stop and appreciate them!
The following day, I headed to Georgia, and this time instead of exploring forests and seeps, I would be heading down into a cave. The cave opening was fairly narrow, however, once inside I immediately saw a very beautiful bright orange Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga). Several more of these salamanders would be observed sitting on ledges, in crevices, and some on the cave walls. The cave was also full of Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus). In fact, at one point I saw a pushy Slimy Salamander walk over the same ledge as a Cave Salamander, knocking the poor Eurycea off!
After emerging from the Cave, I headed over to Alabama. Here I quickly found a Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda), a close relative of the Cave Salamander. Shortly after this, an additional species was seen, the very stunning Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber).
The next day I headed out to explore part of Tennessee. The first species to be encountered was a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum). Two of these were seen. This would be the only Ambystomatid (Mole Salamander family) that I would encounter on my trip. I have several captive Marbled Salamanders that I often use in my outreach education efforts, to promote salamander conservation. Therefore, it is a species I often see daily. However, to see it out in the wild, in its natural habitat is truly awe inspiring!
Close to the forest low-lands where I had observed the opacum was a stream system. This was my next area of exploration. Here I saw several very large Blackbelly Salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus), A close relative, the Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola) was also present in the stream.
Some of the salamanders in the area could only be seen at high elevations, so it was time to head up the mountains. At one spot I encountered several very striking Red-Cheeked Salamanders (Plethodon jordani), named for the vibrantly colored face patches that the salamanders possess. In the same area was a mimic, the Imitator Salamander (Desmognathus imitator). It too possesses red-cheek patches in an attempt to fool predators. This is due to the fact that P. jordani can secrete a noxious substance to deter predation.
My next stop was for another mountain species, the Southern Appalachian Salamander (Plethodon teyahalee). Although not as colorful as its relative jordani, this salamander is still very beautiful, with shiny black coloration and brilliant little speckles. A smaller lungless salamander was also encountered here, the Southern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon serratus). Unlike some of the more widespread Plethodons (like the Eastern Red-backed Salamander), this species is found in widely disjunct populations:
The next day I headed out to hopefully observe a giant salamander, the Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). These large aquatic salamanders are related to the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders in the family Cryptobranchidae. Sadly, the Hellbender is in decline over much of it’s range. Fortunately for me, I was able to observe one of these magnificent salamanders. I was beyond elated! Seeing the animal out in the wild brought me so much happiness! It was indeed a precious moment!
My next venture was in North Carolina. Here I saw another high elevation lungless salamander, the Reg-legged Salamander (Plethodon shermani). Due to its limited range, this species has been labeled as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the area I visited they are still common, and around half a dozen of these beautiful salamanders were seen.Some of these salamanders were found sharing cover objects with another species, the Ocoee Salamander (Desmognathus ocoee). The journey to see this species was truly menacing. The mountain road was narrow and degraded, and I half expected it to crumble away. However, I did indeed survive my quest to see this beautiful salamander.
The following day I was set to explore Tennessee again. The first species I encountered was the Three-lined Salamander (Eurycea guttolineata), a large stream dwelling species. The markings on its long tail were particularly striking. Several Southern Two-lined Salamanders were also seen (Eurycea cirrigera). Several more Two-lines were seen at the next site, as well as more Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus), and a very vibrant Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens).
In the afternoon, I headed back up to a slightly higher elevation. Here I saw several Southern-Gray Cheek Salamanders (Plethodon metcalfi). NatureServe lists this endemic species as Vulnerable, meaning they are at moderate risk of extinction or elimination due to a restricted range, relatively few populations, recent and widespread declines, or other factors. At the same site, several Weller’s Salamanders (Plethodon welleri) were also observed. This species is listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
Before my day was done, I headed to one last spot to observe a very beautiful salamander, the Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus). A habitat specialist, this species is considered Uncommon in Tennessee. I was grateful to have seen several that day!
The following morning I started my long journey back to Ontario, Canada. Before heading right home though, I stopped at one last site in Virginia, and saw several Ravine Salamanders (Plethodon richmondi). Several were found on a damp ridge.
Observational records were collected of the various salamander species I saw. These will be sent to several projects that monitor amphibian populations, and I sincerely hope the data I collected will contribute to the preservation of these incredible animals!