The Hidden Jewels of Appalachia
September 20, 2017 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Appalachia has the greatest diversity of salamanders in the world, but since they largely live underground, many of the people who live in the region are barely aware of how many of the amphibians are around them. The US's National Zoo had an exhibit a few years ago on Appalachian salamanders, including this short film on salamanders, their role in the ecosystem, and how threats to the environment affect them.
posted by Copronymus (9 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Aw, it doesn't mention hellbenders, one of my favorite animal names ever.
posted by tavella at 10:21 AM on September 20 [5 favorites]

Hellbenders do appear in the video, around 0:39. The eastern U.S. is the hotspot for salamander diversity; however, a lot of it is in the plethodontidae (lungless salamanders). That family is generally entirely terrestrial, so the shots of stream dipnetting and electroshock rigs, while cool, are a little misleading. Plethodontids are in part so cryptic and easy to miss because they never need to make a breeding migration--they can stay in the same square meter of leaf litter their whole life, and their babies go through the larval stage entirely within the egg.
posted by agentofselection at 10:31 AM on September 20 [10 favorites]

I got kind of into salamanders during my time as an outdoor environmental educator. I had grown up with very little awareness of them, and was shocked at how easy it was to find them - and quite a diversity - once you knew where and when to look. I still am overjoyed to find the beautiful spotted and marbled salamanders, and can turn them up with ease now when conditions are right!
posted by Miko at 11:51 AM on September 20 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite college biology field trips was to the NC mountains to catch and catalog salamanders. It was an amazing lesson in biodiversity. Essentially we drove / walked up a mountain and stopped at different elevations to catch and count salamanders. At each elevation the mix of species changed dramatically as we hit different micro-micro-climates. We also had grad students catching and releasing hellbenders which were ... feisty and thrashy and very big compared to the other species. If you've ever mist-netted birds it's the equivalent of pulling a few sparrows out of a net, thinking you're mr. wildlife, and then at the next net dealing with a blue jay. Total chaos and not easy.

As the climate changes we need to realize that small mountain species like salamanders can only migrate upwards so far. Once they get to the top of a mountain and the climate gets inhospitable there, that's it.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:59 AM on September 20 [4 favorites]

> hellbenders, one of my favorite animal names ever

aka Snot Otters, my favorite animal name ever.
posted by sidereal at 12:23 PM on September 20 [2 favorites]

I initially read this as "The Hidden Jews of Appalachia," and was like "Ooh- were they Marranos who came over from Louisiana or up from Florida, or from the Spanish Caribbean? Or did they arrive at some later date?"

But no, salamanders are pretty cool too, I guess.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:24 PM on September 20 [2 favorites]

aka Snot Otters

aka old lasagna sides. Also mud cat, devil dog, hogfish, Allegheny alligator, hellbenders have all the best nicknames.
posted by peeedro at 12:32 PM on September 20 [6 favorites]

I grew up in West Virginia in the 1980s. Our elementary school was next to a creek, and we used to find beautiful salamanders at recess, in all shapes and colours. Apparently 34 species have been recorded in the state.

We weren't really taught much about our local wildlife, and I just assumed there were salamanders everywhere. Now I'm in the UK, where we have just three newt species for the whole country. The wildlife may be the only thing I miss about Appalachia.

I'm trying to remember if my dad (who died last year) ever mentioned that Smithsonian exhibition. He would've loved it.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:12 PM on September 20 [2 favorites]

Wonderful post! I live in WNC and get to visit with the salamanders regularly. Folks around here call the Hellbender "waterdogs". Back in the 70's, before, (I believe), they became scarce, I worked with an older guy who would occasionally catch one around the creek feeding his trout ponds. He fried them up and once brought me a sample. White, semi-translucent, didn't have much flavor. I like them better in the creek.
posted by haikuku at 4:48 AM on September 21 [1 favorite]

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