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Experience Your Smokies: The Salamanders of the Great Smokies

Did you know that the The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”?  Nope, not kidding!  It really is!  In fact, the majority of vertebrate (backboned) animals, including human visitors, in the park on any given day are salamanders.  These little guys are a lot of fun to learn about.  In fact, that is how we spent this past Saturday: studying salamanders!  We participated in the “Experience Your Smokies” program with the National Park Service, which was held right here in Haywood County at the Appalachian Highlands Science Center.  The center is perched high atop Purchase Knob, a must visit area of the Great Smokies.

Early on Saturday, our Visit NC Smokies crew set out for Purchase Knob and the Appalachian Highlands Science Center on a quest to meet as many salamanders as we could.  Located at 5,000 feet in Haywood County on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center is part of a network of what will be 32 research learning centers supporting research and education about science in our national parks.

When we arrived, we began our debriefing and learned we would be catching salamanders and recording various points of interest including weight, size, species, and information about the habitat we found them in.  It was very important to take accurate notes because this information would contribute to a larger study.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, including the Great Smokies, are a major center of evolutionary diversification for the family Plethodontidae, commonly known as the lungless salamanders. There are 24 species of lungless salamanders in the park. The family has undergone an extraordinary level of evolutionary diversification in the southern Appalachian Mountains. As their family name implies, these salamanders lack lungs. They “breathe” through the walls of tiny blood vessels in their skin and linings of their mouths and throats. Lungless salamanders are everywhere in the Great Smokies, including in and along streams and under rocks, logs, and leaf litter in the forests.

So with that said, we began our hike down the mountain to Ferguson Cabin, where we received a more in-depth briefing of what we would be doing.  Our program group split into 4 smaller groups and headed out to what is referred to as the “the lower plott” in search of “cookies”.  Up until this Saturday, we were only aware of one kind of cookie…the kind you eat of course!  But in reference to our program,”cookies” are round slices of a tree trunks that were strategically placed in a spread out line from a creek into the woods.  The salamanders are drawn to the habitats created under the “cookies”, which makes it easier to find them during a study such as this.

So our group began its quest for salmanders by carefully flipping over each cookie and using a ziplock baggie to collect our individual salamanders.  It was critical to the salamanders health that we not touch them because their skin is like a sponge and absorbs any outside elements, including anything we may have had on our hands.  Of the 10 cookies we were assigned, we unfortunately only caught one salamander.  The weather that day was unseasonable cold, so most salamanders were burrowed further down than normal.  However, the one little guy we caught was identified as a Santeetlah dusky salamander. This species ranges in color from light to dark brown with a light belly, a moderately keeled tail, and “salt-and-pepper” flecking along the sides.  We took his weight, measured his size, made notes about the habitat we found him in and then returned him. There are many reasons why the NPS must monitor the salamander population.  Most of the salamanders in the Smokies breathe through their skin which makes them sensitive to changes in the environment from threats like acid deposition. Since salamanders are cold-blooded, they may also be impacted by rapidly changing weather conditions in the park, especially in the winter and early spring.

After we finished checking our cookies and recording our findings, we began our hike up a section of the Cataloochee Divide Trail which took us back to the research station. This makes for a great round trip hike, returning you to Purchase Knob.  Once we got back to the research station we enjoyed a tasty lunch together and celebrated the end of our Experience Your Smokies program.  Participating in these programs the last couple months has left us with a new interest and respect for what the National Park Service does to maintain the Great Smokies and all the natural wonder that can be found within it.  To actually see behind the scenes and take part in first hand experience has been incredibly rewarding. We encourage anyone who has interest in this to please contact the National Park Service or the Friends of the Smokies organization and inquire about a volunteer program opportunity.  You will walk away with lasting memories and a deeper love for the beauty and wonder of our national parks.

Featured Photo by Mitchell Andrew Photography

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