Send In The Salamanders
The Natural History of North Carolina's Salamanders

If you were to compile a nationwide inventory of natural history occurrences and separate the list by states, North Carolina would rank at or near the top of many categories. Wildflowers, trees, seashells, birds and even minerals are all found in the Tarheel State in a greater variety than in most other states. The reason is simple: From the mountains to the shore—and through the four seasons—North Carolina has greater variety in habitat and climate than in most other states. This diversity also makes the state an excellent home for amphibians, the class of animals to which the salamanders belong.

As an adult, you might not give salamanders much thought, but I bet as a kid you turned over a few rocks looking for them, especially if you spent any time at a mountain stream. Called "spring lizards" by many of us, salamanders actually are not lizards at all and, other than general body appearance, have little in common with them. Lizards are reptiles with a dry, scaly skin. Most have claws on their feet, and their eggs have a hard, leathery coating. Lizards are more common in the dry, hot environments of the coastal plain. Salamanders, by contrast, have smooth wet skin, no claws on their feet, and their eggs are encased in a jelly-like material. Salamanders belong to the order Caudata, comprised of seven families in North America, all of them represented in North Carolina.

The family Amphiumidae has only one North Carolina species, Amphiuma means, or the two-toed amphiuma. This huge, aquatic animal looks more like an eel than a salamander and, as the name implies, it has two small front legs with two toes on each one. At up to nearly four feet long (yes, I said four feet), it is the largest salamander in the state and among the largest in the world. A coastal plain species, it eats crayfish, mollusks, insects, frogs, small fish and the like, but will also savagely bite any human fingers that get in its way.

Also having only one Tarheel member is the family Cryptobranchidae. Its single species is the eastern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis, one of the oddest creatures you'll find anywhere. Growing to more than 24 inches long, it's not as big as the two-toed amphiuma, but a two-foot salamander is still big in anyone's book. Not only is it big, it's ugly as well, with a dark, brownish coloration and folds of loose skin down the sides of its body that allow it to breathe. Eastern hellbenders are completely aquatic and can live only in large, clear, well-oxygenated mountain streams. Anglers are sometimes startled when they catch them by mistake, but they are completely harmless.

Three North Carolina species of mudpuppies comprise the family Proteidae. Mudpuppies are large, mostly aquatic salamanders that resemble the hellbender, although they are not as big or ugly. They also differ by having external, feathery gills, which makes them look like they're wearing little hats. The common mudpuppy, Necturus maculosus maculosus, lives only in the mountains, while the Neuse River waterdog, Necturus lewisi, is endemic to the state and lives only within the Neuse River drainage. The dwarf waterdog, Necturus punctatus, occurs throughout the piedmont and coastal plain.

The greater and lesser siren (Siren lacertina and Siren intermedia intermedia) belong to the family Sirenidae. These strange salamanders look like a cross between the mudpuppies (with external, feathery gills), the hellbender (ugly), and the two-toed amphiuma (big, and with two small front legs). The greater siren grows up to three feet long. They live only in the coastal plain in ponds, swamps, and weedy ditches, where they forage for crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and algae. If you ever have the occasion to grab hold of one (surely on everyone's "must do" list), you might learn how they got the name "siren". When attacked by predators, they often let out a shrill yelp.

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The five North Carolina members of the family Ambystomatidae are called "mole salamanders" (Ambystoma sp.) because, like moles, they spend most of their lives underground. Unless you happen to run across one during the breeding season (they often amass in large numbers in temporary woodland ponds and depressions) you probably won't ever see one. Depending on the species, they occur all across the state, but only within a very small region of the piedmont do all five live close together.

Probably the most often seen salamander in the state is also among the most interesting. The red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens, which belongs to the family Salamandridae, is unique in that it goes through three distinct life stages. The first stage is an aquatic larva, with gills to absorb oxygen. The larvae transform into a bright reddish orange stage called an eft and then live for a few years on land. Unlike most salamanders, the eft stage of the red-spotted newt forages during the day if the ground is moist. That's why you're more likely to see it than any other species-that, and the fact that its coloration makes it hard to miss. The efts can cover a surprising amount of territory on those tiny legs, sometimes several miles and thousands of feet in elevation higher than the ponds from which they emerged. Another interesting aspect of the efts is that their skin is dry and rough-they don't slide through your fingers like most salamanders. The skin secretes toxins that keep most predators from eating them-no doubt the reason why they are able to prance around during the day. Finally, after a few years on land, the efts transform back into an aquatic adult stage and lose their bright coloration. Red spotted newts were once listed as occurring throughout the state, but a species in the extreme southeastern portion of the state with a slightly different coloration is now considered a distinct species. Newts that live in the eastern part of the state may pass directly from the larval stage to the adult stage.

By far the largest group of salamanders in the state, with nearly 50 species, the family Plethodontidae contains the critters most people think of when they think of salamanders, and except for the eft stage of the red-spotted newt, any salamanders you encounter will likely belong to this family. They're the ones you find by turning over rocks in mountain streams and logs on the forest floor, and they're the ones kids like to have slithering through their hands. They are called "lungless" salamanders because, obviously, they lack lungs. They breathe through blood vessels in their skin and the lining of their mouth.

Most members of the Plethodontidae family live in the mountains, where they have evolved to an extremely complex diversification. This complexity occurs in remarkably small areas-species that live on one mountain may appear different from those of the same species living on a nearby mountain. In many cases, populations separated by mountains have developed into new species. The incredible diversity of lungless salamanders also makes them very difficult to identify. While some species are easily distinguished, others can be impossible to recognize, even by experts.

The southern Appalachians in general and the North Carolina mountains in particular, are rightly known as the "salamander capital of the world," with the cool, moist environment there being perfect for them. Indeed, more types of salamanders (over 30 species in 5 families) live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park than in any area of comparable size in the world.

Exploring the world of salamanders is easy, but with a little foreknowledge and thought you'll have better luck and reduce the possibility of harming the creatures. The first rule is to never handle a salamander with dry hands and never keep them in a dry enclosure. Most species breathe through their skin and it must be moist for them to do so. If you let them get dry, they will suffocate. Stick your hands in the creek before picking them up and add a clump of wet moss or leaves in the container you plan to keep them in temporarily. With a little practice, you can pick them up with your hands easier than using a small net, but you must be careful not to crush them or grab them by the tail. If you do the latter with some species, the tail is all you'll end up with.

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Be careful when turning over rocks and logs so that you don't crush the salamanders and be careful when you place the rock back so that you don't crush anything else that may be living under it. And never turn over a rock or log without putting it right back. You might not see anything, but there's a good chance that a myriad of tiny creatures live there. Don't keep the salamander from its home any longer than it takes to make a general observation and perhaps snap a few photographs. Taking it from its den is stressful enough; you don't want to keep it from eating or perhaps tending its brood. When you do return it, always place it back under the same rock or log. You should never remove an animal from one environment and place it in another.

The best place to find salamanders is in the forested areas of the mountains. You can improve your chances greatly by going out right after (or during) a rain, when you sometimes find them out in the open. On hot days after periods of dry weather you can pretty much forget about seeing anything except for species that live in creeks. Those you can find most anytime just by turning over rocks.

In North Carolina, some 15 salamander species occur in small enough numbers to cause concern. Habitat loss is often cited as a primary factor, as it is in most scenarios involving plant and animal decline, but other factors not fully understood are certainly involved. One probable contributing factor with salamanders is toxic pollution being absorbed by their eggs, which lack a hard outer covering. The websites referenced below are excellent sources for information about not only threats to salamanders, but also what you can do about them.

North Carolina's fortune to have a moderate climate, abundant rainfall, and varied physiography has resulted in an astonishing diversity of flora and fauna. Nowhere is that diversity more evident than in the salamander kingdom. This summer, why not take the kids out on a salamander adventure? They'll have the time of their lives, and if no one's watching, you just might, too.

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To learn more:

The definitive reference for anyone interested in salamanders (and other reptiles and amphibians) in the eastern U.S. is A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, part of the Peterson Field Guide series. Another good book is Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia. Both books are available at most North Carolina bookstores, as well as through online retailers.

Two web sites on the Internet stand out as excellent resources for viewing photos and learning about North Carolina salamanders. The first one is the Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina page at http://www.bio.davidson.edu/projects/herpcons/herpcons.html. The second one is the North Carolina Herpetological Society web site at www.ncherps.org.