One Salamander’s Life

April 19, 2024

A wayward salamander appeared in the Lodge one recent morning. She was motionless with her head up, blinking in the sunlight. Morning tasks for two of us came to a halt as we embarked upon a swift salamander rescue and relocation mission. We scooped her into a garden trug, but she remained unusually still, refusing to scurry or take protective measures. Upon closer inspection, we determined her feet were bound by a hair. We set about freeing her from her human entanglement.

This specimen was yellow-spotted salamander, or Ambystoma maculatum, common throughout the forests of the Eastern United States. They eat worms, insects, spiders, and snails, and they are preyed upon by birds, snakes, fish, and some mammals. They breed in freshwater ponds, where females can lay as many as 250 eggs in masses attached to underwater sticks. Larvae develop for four to six weeks before hatching and are thought to have a symbiotic relationship with a species of algae that provides oxygen for the larvae, who in turn provide nutrients for the algae.

Nocturnal amphibians, salamanders remain hidden under water, rocks, and leaf litter during the day, but we do happen upon a fair number of them at Southern Highlands Reserve. North Carolina leads the nation in number of species present with more than 60, and Southern Appalachia is considered the salamander capital of the United States, if not the world. One species dear to our hearts is Plethedon welleri, or Weller’s salamander, which makes its home under rocks and logs in the high elevation spruce-fir forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Named for Worth Hamilton Weller, a teenage naturalist who died from a fall while collecting them in 1931 at Grandfather Mountain, these black salamanders are typically about three inches long and can appear almost metallic with brassy spots. They feed on spiders, ticks, mites, aphids, springtails, beetles, and butterflies and can produce a poison through their skin to ward off predators. Females lay up to 10 eggs beneath moss mats on conifer logs and remain there faithfully to guard them. Weller’s salamanders do not go through an aquatic larval stage but rather hatch resembling miniature adults. They are listed in North Carolina as a species of special concern due to their dependence on our region’s spruce-fir forests, which are the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States.

Salamanders in their metamorphic cycles and quick evolution provide a plethora of data for scientists researching survival and adaptive processes, essentially the nature of nature. Their astonishing ability to respond quickly to environmental changes will help us better understand the marvels of evolution. The salamander is also considered “a canary in a coalmine” due to its high sensitivity to environmental stressors such as polluted air and water. A thriving salamander population indicates a healthy environment, while their scarcity can warn of a subsequent struggle for birds and mammals.

Barbara Kingsolver addresses the importance of the life of the salamander in her novel, Prodigal Summer, pointing out that each species is the center of its own universe: “Every life has its own kind of worship, I think, but do you think a salamander is worshiping some God that looks like a big two-legged man? Go on! To him, a man’s a shadowy nuisance (if anything) compared to the sacred business of finding food and a mate and making progeny to rule the mud for all times.” She continues with an argument that’s our credo at SHR: all lives are sacred and interconnected. Humans, however, are the only species not adapting to earth even though we are making the most substantial — and destructive — changes to it. This is why acts of conservation are so important — it’s why we are working with partners to address the health of rare ecosystems that are the last refuge for rare and endangered species. This is why SHR exists.

Safely back in her natural environment with use of her legs restored, our yellow-spotted salamander went on about her life. If memory exists for salamanders, we now share one of an April morning when our paths intersected briefly and for the better.