Conservation Outdoors

The Wild Truth: Conservationists Hope to Rescue Hickory Nut Gorge Green Salamander from Extinction

Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander. Photo by Todd Pierson

By Paula Musto

Have you ever seen a green salamander? Probably not. These elusive creatures spend much of their time tucked into moist rock crevices or scavenging for insects high in the lofty realms of a forest canopy. But this ancient species of amphibians could be the poster child for wildlife conservation in our region of the world.

The Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander is found only in a single spot on the planet—a 14-mile stretch of heavily forested land and streams straddling Henderson and Rutherford counties. With only an estimated 500 of these rare creatures remaining, conservationists have petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to place the species on the list of protected wildlife under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander. Courtesy of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy. Photo by José Garrido

“Nowhere else on earth does the Hickory Gorge green salamander exist in nature,” says JJ Apodaca, an Asheville wildlife biologist who with a team of researchers identified the unique species five years ago and is now lobbying to save the animal from extinction. Species covered by federal law cannot have their habitats destroyed unless developers receive a special permit with consideration of conservation measures.

“Every piece of biodiversity is important,” says Apodaca, executive director of conservation and science at the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy whose mission is saving at-risk species and ecosystems. “The Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander has been around some 12 million years compared to 40,000 years for wolves. This incredibly deep lineage—right in our own backyard—warrants legal protection.”

North Carolina is home to more salamander species than any other place in the world, with more than 65 species statewide and 50 species in our mountain region alone. Yet, salamanders are among the most at-risk vertebrates on the planet, Apodaca says, citing recent surveys indicating around half have disappeared over the last 20 years. Like all amphibians, salamanders breathe and absorb water through their very thin skin, making them highly sensitive to disruptions in their environment including climate change, habitat loss, pollution and diseases.

In that respect, these dark-skinned creatures with bright green splotches, can serve as the “canary in the coal mine,” indicating the environmental health of their surroundings. Gary Peeples, a FWS wildlife biologist in Western North Carolina, says the demise of these salamanders may be indicative of a conservation emergency warranting government intervention.

“Every living thing has a role in the natural world,” Peeples says. “When species are removed, we have to ask what that means for the overall health of ecosystems. The green salamander is part of our natural heritage. It’s something that makes us unique and, like our cultural heritage, there’s a lot to be said for preserving it.”

Under federal law, species can be designated threatened (extinction possible in the foreseeable future) or endangered (imminent threat of extinction). FWS will now compile data and determine the animal’s status, which could open eligibility for federal funding to support conservation measures.

“Western North Carolina is increasingly seeing changes to its landscape—not only land converted to development but also the fragmentation of natural areas that divides animal populations and limits animals’ ability to move across landscape,” Peeples says.

“Wildlife mating patterns are impacted, and for some species there may not be enough individuals to sustain their population without help.” One way conservationists help propagate endangered species is to breed captive animals and introduce their offspring into the wild.

Along with the green salamander, a population of bog turtles in our region, which face similar challenges, is under consideration for protected status. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees FWS operations, makes the determination whether a species is awarded protected status.

If you are fortunate enough to see a salamander in the wild, you can help these creatures by leaving natural areas intact and, if hiking in streambeds, take care not to move rocks—a salamander could be hanging out underneath. The challenge is how we manage human activities while at the same time protecting our natural heritage. The future of salamanders, and all wildlife, is at stake.

Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a Candler-based nonprofit that cares for injured or orphaned wildlife with the goal of releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild. To learn more or to donate, visit

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