Authored by Denim Jochimsen, Orianne Volunteer
Georgia ForestWatch is a grassroots organization dedicated to the protection of forests and watersheds in Georgia and the flora and fauna that depend on these habitats. They recognize that the best way to foster appreciation for nature is through engagement and outreach, so they schedule outings that provide their members with opportunities to explore regional areas. Often, these outings are planned and led by experts who are able to offer unique commentary and perspectives. Georgia ForestWatch contacted The Orianne Society to gauge our interest in organizing a hike in search of salamanders, and we happily obliged. Stephen Spear, Orianne Associate Conservation Scientist, proposed an outing in the Chattahoochee National Forest, located in the Appalachian Highlands region of the southern United States. The abundant streams and swaths of mesic forest that characterize this area provide optimal habitat for salamanders and support an astounding diversity of species.
We awoke to overcast skies, cool temperatures and rain on the morning of the hike (November 9). This didn’t dampen our spirits, however, because it increased the likelihood that salamanders would be active! We traveled along a maze of rough forest roads until we reached a pullout at Three Forks, an area located just a few miles from Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. We met up with members of Georgia ForestWatch who, like us, were undaunted by the inclement weather conditions. All of the members were inexperienced when it came to searching for and identifying salamanders, so Stephen provided a nice overview of the species that we would likely encounter. He also spent some time discussing Orianne’s research efforts on Hellbenders, as the area we were about to explore drains into the Toccoa River, which supports a healthy population of these secretive animals. Eager to observe some salamanders in their natural habitats, we set off!
Although we started our adventure by hiking on the Appalachian Trail, we barely walked a mile of its length. Rather, we spread out and searched in the adjacent forest. We lifted cover objects (such as woody debris and rocks) that lie on the forest floor or along the edge of wetland habitat and carefully walked through shallow sections of any creeks we came across. We all got dirty, and it was well worth it—we found seven salamander species during just three hours of searching! We captured a number of individuals so that we could correctly identify them, take photos and discuss their natural history prior to releasing them to their original locations. It was a good thing that we had an identification key handy because some of the species are extremely difficult to distinguish. The following is a summary of the species we were lucky enough to encounter, along with some interesting facts.
All of the species that we observed were Plethodontids, or lungless salamanders. The majority of salamander species that occur in Georgia are classified in this family, and this family actually contains the greatest number of species globally. As their common name implies, these salamanders lack lungs and therefore rely on their skin for gas exchange!
We found two adult Chattahoochee Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon Chattahoochee) nestled in moist moss beneath bark and downed tree branches. These salamanders exhibit parental care; females remain with their eggs until the juveniles emerge. And the hatchlings look just like miniature versions of the adults!
We also uncovered two Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea wilderae) beneath logs that lie on the mesic forest floor. They had long tails and were strikingly yellow with two dark stripes that ran the length of their bodies. Along the edge of the creek winding through the forest, we observed several adult and small juvenile Ocoee Salamanders (Desmognathus ocoee) and Seal Salamanders (Desmognathus moticola). The Ocoee Salamanders had beautiful coloration, with a red, scalloped stripe extending down their backs.
While wading through the creek channel, we captured several Shovel-nosed Salamanders (Desmognathus marmoratus), and we found several Black-bellied Salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) under rocks in shallow areas. This was no easy feat; all of these individuals were quick, slippery and extremely wriggly! The Shovel-nosed Salamanders have tails that are adapted for aquatic habitat; they are flattened from side to side to form a distinct keel. Unlike other species in the genus Desmognathus the nostrils of Shovel-nosed Salamanders are closed internally.
Finally, we observed several Seepage Salamanders (Desmognathus aeneus) under moss and leaf litter in muddy, seepage areas. This species is one of the smallest salamanders in Georgia. Although reportedly common at this location, it took us quite a bit of search effort to finally observe them. This was especially exciting for me because I had not yet encountered this species since arriving in the southeast in August.
Overall, our salamander hike was successful! We shared conversations about the goals and efforts of Georgia ForestWatch and The Orianne Society, and we were lucky enough to observe some of the more secretive inhabitants of the forest.