By Hal and Laura Mahan
Welcome to the Southern Appalachians, salamander capital of the world. These small slimy amphibians are fascinating critters that have made our area famous to herpetologists the world over, since there are more species here than anywhere else—some that are found only here in the Southern Appalachians and nowhere else in the world. There are more than 60 species of salamanders in North Carolina. We are the epicenter of salamander evolution.
Salamanders are sometimes called “spring lizards.” Of course they are not lizards at all, but amphibians, related to frogs and toads. One old legend has it that salamanders are born of fire, probably because when people gathered up old logs from the forest to burn, salamanders would run out of the rotting logs to escape the flames.
Compared to their amphibian cousins, salamanders vary tremendously in how they breathe. Some have fishlike gills, while others have well-developed lungs, and still others breathe completely through their moist skin. For all of these reasons most of our species live in moist or aquatic habitats. In fact they all require water for at least part of their life cycle. You’ll find them in streams, lakes, under wet leaves, and under pieces of wood in the forest.
Worldwide there are approximately 500 kinds of salamanders, ranging in size from a tiny one inch to the Chinese giant salamander, which reaches almost six feet and weighs up to 140 pounds! Can you imagine turning over a log and finding that one? Our local versions are usually four to eight inches, except for the river-dwelling Hellbender, which is between one and two feet long. It is listed as a North Carolina endangered species, and might spend its entire lifespan of up to 30 years living under the same rock in the river. You can help protect the hellbender’s habitat as well as many species of insects and fish by never moving river rocks!
Why is the salamander fauna so incredibly diverse here? The evolution of salamanders came at the same time that the Appalachian Mountains formed. These are the oldest mountains in North America, and salamanders have adapted to many profound geologic and climatalogical changes over the eons. Some salamanders prefer the moist, warm lowland areas, while some are adapted to the highest elevations. Breeding occurs in the spring in ephemeral or temporary shallow ponds. Salamanders often gather with other amphibians, using chemical markers to find each other.
Many species of amphibians are in serous decline, with causes pointing toward diseases (viral and fungal), ultraviolet radiation, and chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Since these tiny creatures spend at least part of their life cycle in ponds, streams and rivers, it is imperative that we all take care to not allow chemicals to make their way into aquatic environments.
There are several annual salamander festivals that pay homage to this diminutive amphibian held throughout the world. Locally, you can attend the annual Salamander Ball on September 24 at the Knoxville Zoo. It is put on by the nonprofit group Discover Life in America to benefit science in the Great Smoky Mountains and beyond. Learn more at dlia.org.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.