Western North Carolina is a wild and wonderful place full of rushing waterfalls, ancient forests, rugged rock cliffs and vistas that go for miles. Here in Brevard, we’re positioned close to the heart of this natural beauty and have near-seamless access to some amazing public lands: Pisgah National Forest to the north and west, DuPont State Forest to the east, and Gorges State Park to the southwest. Each of these managed areas is rich with natural and cultural heritage are home to some of the rarest plants and animals in the southeastern United States.
That said, a large part of my profession involves ecological surveying on these lands as well as private tracts that are contiguous or fall in close proximity. Thus, I regularly run across rare species, even endangered ones, and sometimes have the added luck of discovering new populations of them.
Such was the case earlier this month, when I was working on a tract of private land that lies northeast of DuPont State Forest. DuPont is home to a number of rare, threatened, or endangered species of flora and fauna, but is probably best-known for its broad-reaching populations of the only salamander in NC listed as endangered: the Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus), an amazing amphibian that is as ecologically unique as it is physically beautiful.
The metapopulation of “greens” that inhabits the general DuPont area is one of only two in the state; the other is located in Bat Cave, nearly 11 air miles east of the state park. A metapopulation is a group of populations that are separated by space but consist of the same species.
The only other populations within the genus are located in the Western U.S. I was lucky enough to discover new populations of the species that are now the northern-most known of the DuPont metapopulation.
Green salamanders are biologically unique from other salamanders in our area and are the only ones to exhibit vivid, greenish-yellow flecks on their head, back and tail. Interestingly enough, the patterns etched on greens when they hatch never change and like a human fingerprint, can be used to identify a specific individual over years of monitoring.
Their habitat is also unique; whereas a large proportion of these creatures inhabit wetland or riparian ecosystems, the green finds its home in shaded rock crevices during fall and winter months and migrates into trees during the spring and summer. Because of their seasonal affinity for near-opposite habitats, the species is overwhelmingly found by humans when in the rocks, either guarding their eggs in the summer or hunkering down when the cold begins to set in.
These salamanders are devoted parents come summer breeding time, when a female will lay up to 20 eggs on the roof of a suitable rock crevice and guard them for close to 80 days without eating a single thing, oftentimes without moving more than an inch. During this time she defends her clutch from predation, which occurs mainly via camel crickets but also by snakes such as the ring-neck and small black rat snakes.
Once hatched, juvenile salamanders inhabit their birth rock for the first winter hibernation period then begin to disperse to establish new territories.
However, since these salamanders have been found on porches, wood piles, and sliding doors, sometimes far out of range of any suitable rock, it is possible that their dispersal can occur over considerable distances.
So, last week when I pulled out my flashlight to peruse the crevices of some large boulder complexes in my path, I never thought I’d find these jewels. The excitement was honestly overwhelming. And the populations I discovered were quite significant because they fall nearly 2.5 and 3 air miles from the closest-known eastern and Western sites, respectively. That means these salamanders managed to successfully migrate a considerably long distance from the core DuPont populations, an indicator that their range may be a lot more extensive than we all previously thought. A bonus: the property on which the populations lie is slated for permanent protection via a conservation easement, which will ensure that these rocks and the surrounding ecosystems that are so critical to the greens’ survival will be protected in perpetuity from development, logging, and any other disturbance that could lead to their demise. It is an honor to be able to work so closely with such a small but integral part of our state’s ecosystems and to be a force in its conservation, and represents yet another reason why I love what I do.