The southern Appalachian mountains region in Tennessee is considered the salamander capital of the world. This is due to the great species diversity that is present in this area. The region is also a major center of evolutionary diversification for the Plethodontidae (or Lungless salamander family). As someone who has a great passion and enthusiasm for salamanders, this area is obviously one that I had to explore. I first visited this domain in the Spring of 2014. During the beginning of April 2015, I once again embarked on the long journey from my home in Ontario to the southern Appalachian mountains region.

After a 15 hour drive I arrived to where I was to set up camp. Early the next morning I immediately headed out to start observing salamanders.

Close to where I had set up, a couple of different species of Two-lined Salamanders were observed, the Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera) and the Blue-ridged Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae). During my time in the region I found these salamanders to be quite common in streams and in the adjacent terrestrial habitat.

Blue-ridged Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea wilder), orange colored variation.
Blue-ridged Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea wilder).

In the same vicinity I encountered a single Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus). Although apparently fairly common, it would be my only observation of this species. The same expanse also turned up two large and beautiful Black-chinned Red Salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber schencki), named for their vibrant colour.

Black-chinned Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber schencki).

The surrounding forest also contained several Southern Redbacked Salamanders (Plethodon serratus). At another site, I seen numerous Eastern Redbacked Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), their close relative. This species is extremely familiar to me as they are abundant in my native Ontario.

Southern Redbacked Salamander (Plethodon serratus).

At this same locale Ravine Salamanders (Plethodon richmondi) and the much larger Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus) were also quite common. The slimies are named for a noxious sticky slime that they excrete to deter predation. Both the Redbacks and Slimy Salamanders were encountered in all life stages, (juveniles, sub-adults, and adults). It is also worth mentioning that neither species has a larval or “salamander-tadpole” stage and are born with direct development (as exact miniatures).

Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus).
Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus).
Ravine Salamander (Plethodon richmondi). Photo: Tristan Clark.
Ravine Salamander (Plethodon richmondi).

Two elusive and stunning Mud Salamanders (Pseudotriton montanus) were seen shortly after. According to Amphibaweb, little is known about the abundance of this secretive, often subterranean species. It is not uncommon for decades to pass between sightings despite intense collection efforts at a given location. Therefore, this makes the sightings of these salamanders that much more amazing. Things were going to get even better as merely minutes after the second Mud was seen I would encounter a Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus). The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency describes the Green Salamander as rarely seen. Petranka (1998) states that the Green Salamander is patchily distributed and generally uncommon throughout most of its range. It was truly an immense pleasure and privilege to see this animal in the wild.

Mud Salamander (Pseudotriton montanus). Photo: Tristan Clark.
Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus). Photo: Tristan Clark.

After checking the lowlands, seeps, sinks, and crevices for salamanders (and getting extremely muddy in the process), it was time to head up. At around an elevation of 6,000 feet I encountered many Red-Cheeked Salamanders (Plethodon jordani). They were common under various forms of natural cover. Although the species is abundant, it has a very small range. It is an endemic species found only within the confides of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The red patches on these salamanders may act as a warning signal to predators that it is noxious, producing secretions from granular glands.

Red-Cheeked Salamander (Plethodon jordani).

Close to where I seen my first Red-Cheeked, I encountered an Imitator Salamander (Desmognathus imitator). These salamanders get their name from the “imitation” red patches on their faces. It is thought that by imitating the noxious Red-Cheeked Salamanders, the imitators may also deter predators. Dark phased animals also occur where the bright patches are absent. This was the case in regard to the individual that I encountered.

Dusky Salamander (Desmognathine sp).
Dusky Salamander (Desmognathine sp).

Desmognathine salamanders in general were extremely common. Every site I visited contained some form or another. In many of the streams they were so plenteous that a salamander was found virtually under every rock. In Ontario, only two forms of these salamanders exist (both of which are rare, with a small range). This makes seeing these salamanders in such a huge abundance an incredible experience for me!

I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit such an awe inspiring place, the salamander capital of the world! I must also give a huge thanks to Tristan Clark who acted as a guide during some of my trip, and was crucial to finding the Mud and Green Salamander. I am extremely grateful and forever indebted!

By Matt Ellerbeck, Save The Salamanders

Visiting The Salamander Capital of the World!

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