With salamander diversity reaching its peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, deciphering between more than 30 species can be daunting, but Dr. William Sutton of Tennessee State University is here to help.
No place on Earth has more salamander species than Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which harbors at least 30 species within its boundaries. Why at least? Because there just might be distinct species that scientists have yet to tease apart, using minute differences to decipher one from another. The dawn of DNA sequencing has rapidly advanced biological research and discovery (and the same can be said specifically about salamanders that reside in southern Appalachia). But amphibians represent a single taxon, among many, that requires a complete understanding of its diversity in order to facilitate its protection, especially with the emergence of ranavirus and chytrid fungus looming. This is the reality that, scientifically speaking, we live in a poorly understood world; we have only formally described 2 million species of what is estimated to be at least 10 million species (some biologists estimate many more).
The cobble and boulders alongside this stream in the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are perfect habitat for salamanders.
But let’s assume that you feel overwhelmed by this, and that even though you would like to do your small part, you aren’t quite sure how you can contribute. Perhaps you live in or near one of the many major cities in the eastern United States that is within a three-hour drive to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Maybe you have children, or grand children. Bring them. Arriving at one of several main entrances, depending on what direction you come from, the formula is the same. Find a pull-off and park your car. There is a flowing river within a short walking distance (follow the sound of rushing water). When you find it, start gently flipping rocks and logs. If there isn’t a slimy inhabitant hiding underneath, return them to their original position. But if you see a salamander staring back up at you, take a picture! They are quick, but if your organism is relaxed enough, inspect it closely. What color is it? How would you describe its head shape? Its eyes? Point it out to your fellow adventurers. When everyone has had a peek, leave it be. Repeat.
Morphological features such as eye shape, head shape, and jaw musculature can provide clues to identifying a species of salamander.
Maybe this short film, featuring Tennessee State University Professor of Wildlife Ecology Dr. William Sutton, will help you to identify your salamander to its family, genus, or maybe even species. Tell your friends about your experience. Spread the word. If citizen scientists like you make an effort to better understand the living world around them and its importance, you will be doing your small part to conserve the remaining masterpieces of evolution.
See more of Todd Amacker’s work at www.toddamacker.com.
Additional salamander photography by Todd W. Pierson, some of which is featured in the film, can be found here.
By Todd Amacker
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