Hunting for Salamanders in the southern Appalachians


Red-legged Salamander (Plethodon shermani) – Houston Chandler

On a cool morning in early October, we set out with a group of Orianne Society members to search for reptiles and amphibians in the north Georgia mountains. This marked the start of Places You’ve Never Herped 14. We have been taking Orianne Society members on field herping expeditions annually since 2012, traveling to places all over the southeastern U.S., Vermont, and even Costa Rica. Events generally target an area that has not been well-surveyed for herpetofauna or focus on a specific species (e.g., PYNH 13 targeted alligator snapping turtles). This time salamanders were the focus of the event and with good reason.

The southern Appalachian Mountains are a biodiversity hotspot that supports by far the highest salamander diversity of any region on Earth. Excitingly, new salamander species are still being described in this region, both using modern genetic analyses and from chance encounters with previously unknown species (see below). Many of the salamander species found in the Appalachians have small ranges that are restricted to a handful of nearby mountains or even to just a single mountain. Small ranges combined with a general susceptibility to environmental change create many conservation challenges for salamanders across the Appalachians. Habitat destruction and alteration, including the impacts of mining, human development, and forestry, are widespread, which reduces the habitat quality for salamanders and other species. Furthermore, many mountaintop species depend on cool, damp environments that are now threatened by a warming climate. For example, the Shenandoah Salamander (Plethodon shenandoah) occurs at high elevations on several mountains in Shenandoah National Park and is likely to be negatively impacted by increasing temperatures (Dallalio et al. 2017). The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), one of the largest salamander species in the world, is found in cold-water streams across this regions but has declined across much of its range (Wheeler et al. 2003). Water pollution and siltation are two of the primary threats facing existing hellbender populations. Despite the many conservation challenges, the southern Appalachians remain a truly special place for anyone who appreciates biological diversity and the incredible abundance of salamander species found across this ancient mountain range.

Worldwide salamander diversity –

One of the exciting things about searching for salamanders in the Appalachians is that you do not have to travel that far to encounter new species or even new groups of species. Adjacent mountains can have totally different salamanders, and some species inhabit forests while others are found near flowing water. With this in mind, we divided into two groups and traveled to different areas to maximize the number of species that we were likely to encounter. We explored along the margins of a small river, shined for salamanders in exposed rock faces, and climbed one of Georgia’s tallest mountains. Despite generally dry conditions, we encountered salamanders a plenty, highlighted by a Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) and Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus). Even though amphibians dominated the morning, a small pile of trash yielded a large Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus), and we found a solitary Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) that had climbed all the way to the top of the mountain!

Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) – Houston Chandler
Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus) – Ben Stegenga

That afternoon, we targeted a slightly different salamander assemblage by searching in and around a couple of small creeks. It didn’t take us long to turn up both Black-bellied Salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) and Seal Salamanders (Desmognathus monticola). As we walked along the small stream, I spotted an impressively large Black-bellied Salamander sitting in the shallow water. We were able to coax it into a net for everyone to get a good look. Salamanders of this size are not often encountered, and this was one of the highlights of the weekend.

A large adult Black-bellied Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) – Houston Chandler

To cap off a successful first day, we traveled to the top of one of the few mountains home to the Red-legged Salamander (Plethodon shermani). Many woodland salamanders are active on the surface at night as they hunt for small insects, and it took us less than five minutes to stumble on the first Red-legged Salamander walking across the forest floor. Over the next hour, we found several dozen more, all out searching for a meal. The final stop of the night was a large wet rock face that was covered in several species of Desmognathus salamanders. Observing salamanders occurring at high abundance is an important reminder of the important role that these species play in forested ecosystems (Semlitsch et al. 2014).

Rain showers moved into the mountains overnight. This weather was sure to make salamanders happy but would it hinder our ability to find them? As it turns out, the rain did actually make finding some species more difficult, particularly the Shovel-nosed Salamander (Desmognathus marmoratus) that lives only in flowing water. Enough rain had fallen to raise water levels in the small creeks to a point where visibility was nonexistent. It took longer than expected, but we still managed to turn up two Shovel-nosed Salamanders in the swiftly flowing water.

Shovel-nosed Salamander (Desmognathus marmoratus) – Houston Chandler

The last site of the weekend was home to one of the rarest salamanders in the entire Appalachians – the Patch-nosed Salamander (Urspelerpes brucei). Described just 10 years ago, it was the first completely new genus of amphibian described in the United States in almost 50 years (Camp et al. 2009). It’s no wonder this species went undetected for so long as adults grow to just over 1 inch and the total known range covers approximately 15 square miles. Furthermore, adults are rarely encountered and observing larvae in small streams is generally the only way to see this species. We were able to find several larva of this diminutive salamander over a couple hours of searching. This tiny salamander was the highlight of the weekend for many and demonstrates how species can go undetected by science even in today’s world. Overall, we observed 26 species of reptiles and amphibians, including 15 salamander species, in just two days (species list below). Searching for salamanders in the Appalachian Mountains is a great way to spend a weekend!

Four larval Patch-nosed Salamanders (Urspelerpes brucei) – Houston Chandler

Species List

Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

Black Racer (Coluber constrictor)

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna)

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans)

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)

Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus)

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae)

Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)

Three-lined Salamander (Eurycea guttolineata)

Red-legged Salamander (Plethodon shermani)

Southern Gray-cheeked Salamander (Plethodon metcalfi)

Atlantic Coast Slimy Salamander (Plethodon chlorobryonis)

Black-bellied Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus)

Dwarf Black-bellied Salamander (Desmognathus folkertsi)

Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola)

Ocoee Salamander (Desmognathus ocoee)

Shovel-nosed Salamander (Desmognathus marmoratus)

Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus)

Patch-nosed Salamander (Urspelerpes brucei)

Literature Cited

Camp, C.D., W. E. Peterman, J. R. Milanovich, T. Lamb, J. C. Maerz, and D. B. Wake. 2009. A new genus and species of lungless salamander (family Plethodontidae) from the Appalachian highlands of the south-eastern United States. Journal of Zoology 279:86–94.

Dallalio, E. A., A. B. Brand, and E. H. C. Grant. 2017. Climate-mediated competition in a high-elevation salamander community. Journal of Herpetology 51:190–196.

Semlitsch, R. D., K. M. O’Donnell, and F. R. Thompson. 2014. Abundance, biomass, nutrient content, and the potential role of terrestrial salamanders in Missouri Ozark forest ecosystems. Canadian Journal of Zoology 92:997–1004.

Wheeler, B. A., E. Prosen, A. Mathis, and R. F. Wilkinson. 2003. Population declines of a long-lived salamander: A 20+ year study of hellbenders, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Biological Conservation 109:151–156.