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Searching For Salamanders in Appalachia

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The Appalachian region is home to more salamander species than anywhere else in the world, making it a true hotspot for salamander biodiversity.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
The Appalachian region is home to more salamander species than anywhere else in the world, making it a true hotspot for salamander biodiversity.

The Appalachian region is home to the most bio-diverse community of salamanders in the world. Out in Western Maryland lies a frost pocket that creates perfect conditions for these amphibious lovers of the cold and damp.

Deborah Landau is the conservation ecologist at the Maryland-DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which protects Finzel Swamp, a haven for salamanders. She says that despite their small size, salamanders are voracious predators.

“They’ll eat an incredible amount of invertebrates that they’re finding terrestrially as well as aquatically,” she says. “Finzel, since it’s the headwaters of the Savage River, the swamp is protected. It’s buffered from agriculture so the water here is very clean.”

Landau says clean water is important for salamanders’ health. That’s especially true for members of the Plethodontidae family, which includes lung-less salamanders that breathe through their skin.

Kim Terrell, a wildlife biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoo, says that 14 percent of the world’s known species of salamander live in the region. But climate change is making life difficult for some species, and it’s pushing others out of the area. She says the Hellbender, the largest salamander species in North America, was once really common in Maryland.

“But now they are barely hanging on, only in Garrett County in extreme Western Maryland,” she says. “The major issue that this species is facing is sedimentation or the accumulation of dirt in their streams. So because they live in the water and they breathe through their skin, they need really clean, clear water.”

She says on top of that, their skin is like a sponge and can soak up pollutants in the water. Hellbenders are also commonly poached or killed in the wild.

“So they still occur in Maryland, but these days surveys are turning up fewer and fewer Hellbenders and it’s pretty conceivable that in the near future they might disappear from the state,” she says.

Other species are also feeling the effects of climate change.

“Climate change has not been an issue historically, but it’s something that’s on the horizon that we expect to really impact a lot of salamanders, and that’s because they tend to have really small home ranges and they tend to be adapted to cool, moist environments,” Terrell says. “So when the region becomes warmer and dryer, a lot of these species will lose a lot of habitat and especially for salamanders that live on the top of the mountain, they can’t move up in elevation, you know, they have nowhere left to go.”

She says some species of salamanders may be able to adapt and deal with climate change, but with more than 75 different species of salamanders in the region, conservationists need to figure out which ones are going to be at risk.

“There was a study that just came out of Karen Lips’ lab at University of Maryland showing that salamanders have become smaller over the past couple of decades as the climate has warmed and the theory behind that is that as their habitats became warmer, they became smaller in order to conserve energy,” she says.

Smaller salamanders might not be a big problem, but Terrell says it is an indication that something is going on.

“Smaller salamanders are one direct observation that climate change is impacting amphibians in this region, and we know climate change is happening and we suspect that it’s going to impact a lot of species but we have surprisingly little hard evidence that those impacts are occurring because it’s a difficult sort of thing to document,” she says. “So while the implications of smaller body size are sort of unclear, it’s good to have this direct evidence that we do see impacts at the species and populations levels.”

Landau says protecting the salamanders’ habitats could stall the effects of climate change.

“Here at Finzel in these frost pockets, a lot of the restoration work we’re doing is to restore some of the conifer trees that used to be here such as red spruce, white pine,” she says. “We’re working on protecting the hemlocks from invasive species, and we’re restoring the native larch trees that we have and bringing back all these conifers that used to be here would help buffer the effects of climate change.

The Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) have deemed 2014 the Year of the Salamander, and Landau says it’s a wonderful way to highlight these cute, slimy creatures.

“It’s really increasing awareness so people understand what we have, what creatures are around here, and ways that we can protect them,” she says. “Here at The Nature Conservancy obviously we’re protecting the land, the preserve that we’re on, but also thinking about water quality, about pollutants, about siltations, about all the different things you can do to protect the waters around you and therefore the salamanders, so everything really is connected here.”

Music: "Salamander" by Jethro Tull from The Best of Acoustic Jethro Tull

Second photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

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