Salamander Chronicles

Salamander, Evolution, and Awesomeness

Well, I haven’t updated my blog since my last summer.  Not from a lack of activity, but rather the busiest year of grad school up until this point for me.  This  was my longest and final field season and it ended up being so busy that I barley took any photos and consequently never wrote any blog posts.  So instead of a long winded description of the past year I am just going to highlight a couple things from field work.  Future blog posts will most likely cover problems with data and statistical analyses (fun!), and my progress in getting a post doc position or job!

My field season started in March at my southern most sites in the Smoky Mountains. I was able to start early with the help of an OCEES fellowship which relieved be a teaching duties for the spring semester. The big goal of coming out early was  to sample lower elevation field sites that become too warm for salamanders by the time I am normally able to start my field season.

The first half of my field season last from March until late April with the help of Courtney Thomas, Becca Wier, and Ryan Friebertshauser.  Overall, it was a fantastic two months and I was able to wrap up data collection for my main dissertation project.  We did see some very cool animals, but as I mentioned, I barely took any photos!  However, here are a couple that I took with my phone.

Black-bellied Salamander

Desmognathus quadramaculatus

Spring Salamander

Gyrinophilus porphyriticus

Wellers Salamander

Plethodon welleri

Slimy Salamander

Plethodon cylindraceus


The second half of my field season focused on an extension of my dissertation work and was only possible because my advisor Donald Miles and myself received an OURC grant of $8,000.   This project involved assessing the Bogert effect in plethodontid salamanders.  The Bogert effect essentially says that  a species uses behavioral compensation (in my case, salamanders using specific microhabitats) to maintain physiological performance even at the edge of their range.  If this is occurring salamanders may be able to utilize different microhabitats to cope with climate change. However, if it is not occurring, then salamander numbers may be reduced at the edge of species ranges or ranges may actually contract as the climate continues to change.


Packing up for one last dissertation field work trip!



The view from Purchase Knob, the research station we stayed at all summer, in the Great Smoky Mountains



We had elk hanging out with us every once and awhile.

We had elk hanging out with us every once and awhile.

I was able to setup a nice lab at Purchase Knob in order to conduct some thermal and hydric experiments to go along with my field work.  This included collecting thermal preference , critical thermal maximum, and water loss rates for several species of Plethodon salamanders from high and low elevation populations.


Part of my lab setup including agar model salamanders solidifying.


More of the lab setup. We needed LOTS of plastic containers. Anything that was touched by a salamander needed to be disinfected before it could be reused.


Salamanders being tested for their critical thermal maximum.

To study the Bogert effect I placed agar model salamanders (which provide water loss rates) and iButtons (continuously record temperature) and various microhabitats from high to low elevation in the smoky mountains.  I also surveyed for salamanders both day and night to assess what kinds of microhabitats they were using. Becca Wier, who helped my during the entire summer of 2014 and for a week in spring 2015, Morgan Etheridge, and Jessica Mace all helped this summer.  These field assistants were a tremendous help during this second session of field work to the point that they complete the majority of the actual field work the last few weeks while I entered data.  Overall, this project also went extremely well, we even had some salamanders hanging out with the agar models!.  I will finish organizing and analyzing data this fall. So look for updates as the results of this research progress!

Model (left) and Plethodon teyahalee (right)

Model (left) and Plethodon teyahalee (right)

I have yet again failed to keep this updated all summer.  Even though I have an extra battery in my car which basically allows me to charge my laptop anytime I want, the whole working 6-7 days a week and not having internet really made me lazy about writing blog posts. So as I did at the end of last summer I will try to summarize the fun and interesting parts of the field work, but mostly just include the best photos.

The field season was broken into two time frames.  A brief 9 day trip in May with my two field assistants from last year, William Ternes and Celeste Wheeler, and myself, where we covered some low elevation sites in North Carolina and Tennessee and we also visited Plethodon sherando field sites up in Virginia.  This first trip was pretty uneventful.  We were able to collect data to help support a project that we hope to have submitted for publication later this year.  My two co-authors Will and Celeste present a poster on this project which compares habitat use of the microendemic P. sherando to the widespread P. cinereus, at the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists which occurred at the end of the summer in Chattanooga, TN.

Celeste and Will presenting our poster at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

Celeste and Will presenting our poster at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists – July 30th-August 3rd

After this first field work trip, we all ventured to a the 6th Plethodontid conference.  We joined several other people from Ohio University and drove a van together down to Tulsa, OK.  This conference only happens every 5-10 years, so it was really a treat to get to participate.

The second field work trip happened immediately after the Plethodontid conference. Celeste moved on and went to Arizona to work on tree lizards with my former lab mate Matt Lattanzio.  However, Will Ternes continued on with me and we also added on TWO new field assistants Kristie Warak and Rebecca Wier. Both Kristie and Becca met me at the start point of our second trip which was Bear Heaven campground near Elkins, WV. This second leg started at my northern most sites in West Virginia and weaved south down the Appalachian Mountains into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.


I think it will be best to summarize how the summer went and then show some photos of the coolest animals.

First off, I added some new sampling  this summer.  Previously, I had relied on range maps to determine species richness.  However, this really doesn’t paint an accurate picture especially for microhabitat work.  Therefore, I started doing time constraint searches at all of my sites.  This included 1 person hour of search during both the day and night.  After searching we then completed microhabitat data collection at 10 random locations.  So for each site I currently have two searches and 20 random microhabitat data points.  This will hopefully be continued next year so I can add more searches and more microhabitat points which will help me assess if variability in microhabitat promotes species diversity.  The night surveys allowed us to observe some cool events such as tons of climbing salamanders.  When people think salamanders they normally think of streams.  So when I tell them that there are tons of them in the forest living in the leaf litter they are normally pretty shocked.  It is even harder to convince people that they actually come out in huge numbers and even climb meters off the ground on the right nights!  We also saw salamander emerging from within big decaying logs. This site reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is in the pit with snakes coming out of holes in the walls….only with salamanders.

Desmognathus emerging from a log at night in north east Tennessee

Desmognathus emerging from a log at night in northeast Tennessee


Other than that addition, everything was the same as last year.  I continued to sample 1 meter square microhabitat plots with and without salamanders.  The number of plots completed is now over 500 which is almost double from the previous two years.


Now for the photos, I think it will be easier to break this up into taxonomic groups rather than by location since I am not 100% positive where each salamander (or other animal) came from.  I could look this up using the dates but for this purpose I don’t think it is necessary. If you want more information on any of the animals just let me know, because I probably have a lot more data than what I am presenting here. Also, as a disclaimer, I added in common names for most species, but some I left out.  If you want to know the common name for anything that I did not list, just let me know.

First the reptiles!  The reptiles are going first because it was a fairly uneventful reptile year with a few exceptions.  We only saw a few lizards and I only managed to photograph one.  However, I am pretty sure we found a Coal Skink which would have been a lifer for me and very cool, but I did not get photos so I can not be positive on the ID! The one skink I did get a photo of was just a juvenile  skink, I am guessing it is a common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), but I do not know my skinks well enough to be sure as many of them look similar especially when they are young.

Juvenile skink found in northern Virginia

Juvenile skink found in northern Virginia


We also saw several cool snakes, but the only species that was new (for my dissertation field work) was a copperhead.  We found two copperheads, the first was at a field site sitting next to a stream.  The snake was relatively small and did not move despite being photographed for 30 minutes.  I did not move the snake, we just watched it hang out and observed him for a bit.  The second copperhead was found in the middle of the Blue Ridge Parkway  by Becca and Kristie.  This snake was, to put it lightly, very unhappy.  It is possible that Becca’s car straddling over him caused him to be a bit angry.  He struck at us a lot but we eventually got him off the road.

Copperhead found at a field site

Copperhead found at a field site

Copperhead found on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Copperhead found on the Blue Ridge Parkway


Both of the copperheads were found very early in the year, but we had a pretty long delay before out next major snake find.  We saw several black rat snakes, garter snakes, ring neck snakes, but no other uncommon or really neat species until the very last night.  Driving home on our last night out in the field in the Great Smoky Mountains we drove up on a juvenile timber rattlesnake!!  I thought it was a great way to finish off the field season.


Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) found on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina


Now on to the bulk of the cool stuff found this summer, the salamanders!  I mean I am studying them so I would hope most of the cool and rare things found during my work would be salamanders.  Again, I will break this up into different groups, starting with Desmognathus. Desmogs are the group I find the most interesting, but they are also some of my least favorites just because I still find it incredibly difficult to identify them.  As I discussed in my previous post, there is extreme variation in color and pattern in many Desmog species. The  easiest to identify species are the tiny ones and the huge ones like the Pygmy and Black-bellied salamanders.

Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus wrighti), the smallest desmognathus and close to if not the smallest salamander in the US

Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus wrighti), the smallest Desmognathus and close to if not the smallest salamander in the US

Pygmy salamander (Desmognathus wrighti) with my hand for size comparision

Pygmy salamander (Desmognathus wrighti) with my hand for size comparison

Black-bellied salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus), the largest Desmog to comapre with the smallest Desmog

Black-bellied salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus), the largest Desmog to compare with the smallest Desmog pictured above.

Desmog sp. with eggs

Desmog sp. with eggs

Desmog sp. (I think D. ocoee)

Desmog sp. (I think D. ocoee)

Desmog sp.  (I think D. santeetlah)

Desmog sp. (I think D. santeetlah)

Desmog sp.

Desmog sp.

The next group of salamanders I want show you are the  Pseudotriton, although I only found red salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber), but we found a many of them.  I think we only found one red salamander last year.  This year we found bunches including one site where we found 4 different individuals including some pretty interesting color variation.  I know these guys are pretty common and have a pretty extensive range, but they are one of my favorites to find because they are not as common to find just flipping cover objects and looking through leaf litter, normally you need to search in muddy or mucky areas to have the best luck.  Plus, they are gorgeous, and it is a nice change from finding small bodied Plethodon species all day. So overall I am glad we got to find so many this year, and I also got to add several data points for this species which was fairly unexpected.

Pseudotriton ruber from I do not remember

Pseudotriton ruber

Pseudotriton ruber from near Sherando, Virginia

Pseudotriton ruber from near Sherando, Virginia

Pseudotriton ruber from near Peaks of Otter, Virginia

Pseudotriton ruber from near Peaks of Otter, Virginia

Pseudotriton ruber from near Peaks of Otter, Virginia

Pseudotriton ruber from near Peaks of Otter, Virginia

Two Pseudotriton ruber from near Peaks of Otter, Virginia

Two Pseudotriton ruber from near Peaks of Otter, Virginia


We also found many of the more common species, but I did not focus on taking photos as much this summer so I only have a few good photos of the genera that are not as prevalent in my research plots including the eft stage of the red spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

Slimy salamander species and Eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Slimy salamander species and Eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)

Southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)

The next group is probably the most important to my research as they are typical terrestrial group of plethodontid salamanders, the Plethodon  species (plethodontid refers to the family Plethodontidae, where Plethodon is a genus within this family).  The other genera of Plethodontids are typically more aquatic with a few exceptions such as the pygmy salamander (Desmognathus wrighti) which is completely terrestrial including direct development.  However, most other plethodontids spend a good portion of their life in or very near water.  I also went out of my way to find some extra cool species, including Weller’s salamander (Plethodon welleri) which is restricted to high elevation spruce habitat within its relatively small range.  Overall I am pretty sure I found more species than I have in any other previous years (I have to confirm with my data on that), but some of it was just for fun and was not always research related.  I think I took off maybe 6 or 7 days all summer and every one of them except for a one day trip to Asheville, NC involved looking for salamanders.  You know how you know you love what you do?  When you go and do what you do for fun when you take a break from doing it for work.  The photos below are the cream of the crop, all the cool species that have either restricted ranges or just look fantastic.

Plethodon yonahlossee, probably my favorite Plethodon

Plethodon yonahlossee, probably my favorite Plethodon

Plethodon yonahlossee

Plethodon yonahlossee

My first Plethodon welleri, extremely cool species, I wish I was able to see more, perhaps next year

My first Plethodon welleri, extremely cool species, I wish I was able to see more, perhaps next year

Plethodon wehrlei were fairly common at my West Virginia sites

Plethodon wehrlei were fairly common at my West Virginia sites

This Plethodon wehrlei was found a few feet from my tent at our very first campsite

This Plethodon wehrlei was found a few feet from my tent at our very first campsite

Plethodon teyahalee is found in the southern Appalachians and can hybridize with several other species

Plethodon teyahalee is found in the southern Appalachians and can hybridize with several other species

The Big Levels salamander (Plethodon sherando) is only found within a small area of Augusta County, VA

The Big Levels salamander (Plethodon sherando) is only found within a small area of Augusta County, VA

Plethodon nettingi also have a somewhat restricted range, found at high elevations typically in spruce habitat in West Virginia

Plethodon nettingi also have a somewhat restricted range, found at high elevations typically in spruce habitat in West Virginia


This is probably one of the best photos of the summer simply because the Peaks of Otter Salamander (Plethodon hubrichti) is not a fan of sitting still.  They also have a very restricted range as you can see in my previous posts about  identifying Plethodon species.

This is probably one of the best photos of the summer simply because the Peaks of Otter Salamander (Plethodon hubrichti) is not a fan of sitting still. They also have a very restricted range as you can see in my previous posts about identifying Plethodon species.


These final two animals were not research related, but they are both extremely cool animals that I have always wanted to see.

The first is the Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga).  This species can certainly be found outside of caves, but they are much more prevalent in and around them.  I was able to see this guy at a cave near Mountain Lake Biological Station (5-10 miles away).  He was found outside the cave entrance, but from what I have heard inside the cave it is routine to see 20+ cave salamanders, or going out at night many individuals can be seen outside the cave.  I was lucky and able to see this guy outside in the middle of the day.


Very over saturated Eurycea lucifuga photo

Very over saturated Eurycea lucifuga photo

Very gorgeous Eurycea lucifuga

Very gorgeous Eurycea lucifuga

The finally species I will include in this post is the coolest animal I have ever seen in the wild.  I have certainly been a snake person most of my life, but this salamander just blew me away.  When I reported the sighting to NC Wildlife Resources Commission (they request this on their information sheet on the species), I was told the area I was in is a hot spot for the species.  I am of course referring to the great and mighty Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis).  This species is still common in streams and rivers that meet its habitat requirements, but it is certainly declining through much of its range.  It was a pleasure to get to see them.  It really makes me want to find a way to research this awesome species if I can get the chance.  For the moment I am just glad I was able to see them in the wild (I saw two at this location).

The great, the amazing, Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)

The great, the amazing, Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)


Overall, it was a great summer, I collected a bunch of data, I saw a ton of very cool animals, and everything went smoothly. I want to thank my field assistants Will Ternes, Kristie Warak, and Becca Wier who were big helps this summer.  I am looking forward to one more final year of field work which will most likely include some work this fall and extensive work next spring and summer.  After that I will be able to focus on writing and finishing up the dissertation. So for now, I hope you enjoyed the photos.  If you have any questions feel free to ask!   I will hopefully follow up with some posts about this falls field work and maybe one or two on the field ecology lab I will be teaching this semester.  Happy herping!


I have loved reptiles and amphibians since I was a kid; however I didn’t really start thinking about them from a scientific standpoint until I was in college.  I was more into snakes, but I remember going on my undergraduate herpetology field course lead by the salamander biased Carl Anthony. At the time I was like, “Where are all the snaaaaaakes?”. However, I look back now as it being a pretty critical moment in my academic life. I especially remember finding Plethodon yonahlossee in North Carolina and just being amazed at those robust and colorful salamanders. I also remember finding Desmognathus species that had coloring VERY similar to Plethodon yonahlossee. This seemed odd, given the Desmogs were much smaller so it would be hard to be a real good mimic, I thought it was cool none the less.  I kind of wrote it off as just color variation and didn’t think about it much for the next few years. This summer though really has made me think about it again with more scrutiny.

First off, there may be substantial literature out there discussing this topic, so if anyone sees this post and knows of some good papers, I would love to read them.  However, I have not found any that discuss Desmog mimicry in great detail (outside of the obvious ones I am about to mention).  Everyone knows the obvious mimics, such as Desmognathus imitator and D. ocoee, which can have red cheeks or red legs which directly mimic Plethodon jordani, Plethodon cheoah, and Plethodon shermani.  Desmogs have substantial color variation and although I have poorly documented a lot of the individuals that look like they are mimicking a distasteful species which I have seen the past few years, I think I have seen examples of Desmogs mimicking several other Plethodon species (and potentially even a Leopard slug).


This first image shows the iconic Plethodon jordai vs Desmognathus imitator comparison. This mimicry is pretty striking and very difficult to argue.



This next one is less obvious, but has potential to be a case of mimicry. One the left is Plethodon montanus and on the right is a Desmog species found under the same cover object. Now, most Desmogs have lots of color variation and almost all have have a nearly all black/dark dorsum, but when looking for these guys it is hard to tell them apart at first glance  so this may be a case where this confusion has caused much of this population to have this dark coloration (I think all Desmogs found were dark, however this is from last year and I was not thinking about this topic then).



These final two pictures are from Plethodon nettingi (top) and a local Desmog (bottom). The flecking on the Desmog is more pronounced, but the variation in P. nettingi is pretty high, ranging from many silver flecks to brassy flecking and even a mostly dark dorsum.  Although I am sure it exists, I have never seen this color variation in Desmogs anywhere else and it seems to closely mimic the local Plethodon species.




Finally, we have also seen Desmogs that have very similar patterns to the abundant (and I am guessing distasteful) Leopard Slugs. Unfortunately, none of us got a good photo of the salamander, but when we found it we all came to the same conclusion. Of course there are also an abundance of red/yellow striped Desmog color patterns which is similar to many species of Plethodon including the super abundant Plethodon cinereus.

I have to imagine this has been discussed before and/or maybe it is all just a crazy amount of color variation and no mimicry is occurring. However, I have seen it enough in my short time working with salamanders to be intrigued. I am hoping to find more example during the rest of the field season, but as summer comes into full swing, I may have to wait until next spring for some of them. If anyone has any thoughts or more information on the topic I would love to hear it.

Also, I hope to have a full field update soon, however given WiFi and safe areas to use computers (since we have been camping 95% of the time) I have been using that limited time for data entry and other science related things. I should have a post up in the next couple weeks though (with many cool photos).


Before I start the bulk of my field work I wanted to make a post on the small bodied Plethodon species of the eastern US and include some ways to help identify them without going through a key. There are plenty of quality resources for identifying these species with using typical identification keys (I will provide a list of good guides at the end). However, for the casual hiker/herp this isn’t always realistic as identifying some of these key morphological features require a lot of handling. Small salamanders can overheat and die VERY quickly, so it is ideal to avoid handling them, especially for more then a couple minutes. Also, if people know you are found of reptiles and amphibians (at least in my experience) they will often send you photos asking for identification help which often makes using a key impossible. Therefore, being able to offer a educated guess with general morphological characteristics and geographic location can be very handy.  Plethodon species aren’t as difficult to identify as members of the Desmognathus genus, but, especially for the casual naturalist, small Plethodon species (e.g. compared to large bodied glutinous species groups) can be difficult to tell apart. Before I go any further, I would like to thank Todd Pierson for letting me use some of his photos, you can tell which photos are his as they contain his name and they are also substantially better then any of mine.

Just to reiterate, the goal here is to offer ways to narrow down species identification when information is limited to the salamanders location (possibly habitat) and only general knowledge of the salamanders appearance. Also, a key thing to mention, that people unfamiliar with salamanders may not know, there can be SUBSTANTIAL color variation in many species. One of the most variable species is the red-backed salamander, which have many color variants that to the untrained eye will look nothing like photos found in field guides. However, most of these extreme color and pattern differences are uncommon, but be aware they do occur. The most common color variation found in Plethodon species is the presence or absence of a dorsal stripe. Plethodon cinereus, Plethodon serratus, Plethodon sherando, Plethodon shenandoah, Plethodon ventralis, and Plethodon dorsalis all exhibit this dorsal stripe polymorphism. However, using locality information and other characters it should be possible to distinguish between most of these species.

I know some people will not be familiar with scientific names, but I get in the habit of using them.  So to avoid confusion, here is a table of scientific names with their respective common names.


I am also going to include a few range maps, all of them are high resolution so it is best to click on them and zoom into them in a new window. The first shows species that have very limited ranges and in many cases are the only small bodied Plethodon species present where they occur.


Starting at the southern most species on this first map, Plethodon welleri, which exists primarily at high elevations and spruce-fir forests. This species can be present as low as 800 meters elevation, but they are primarily found much higher, closer to 1,500 meters. However, this is an easily to identify species as they are pretty distinct from other Plethodon in the area. They have an overall dark color to their body but they are covered with gold/brassy blotches. They are a very gorgeous species (I am still waiting to find my first). There are not many species that can be confussed with Plethodon welleri. Other species may have brass or gold flecking, but it will not be as pronounced.


Further north in Virginia we find the Peaks of Otter salamander, Plethodon hubrichti. This species actually somewhat resembled Plethodon welleri, in that it also has a dark body covered with gold/brass coloration. However, where as Plethodon welleri has more pronounced blotches, Plethodon hubrichti has smaller fleckings of color. Also their ranges do not even come close to overlapping. The Peaks of Otter Salamander is only found in Bedford and Botetourt counties making them fairly easy to identify with locality information.


Still working our way north we find the Big Levels Salamander, Plethodon sherando, which looks almost identical to Plethodon cinereus. This is where there can be some real confusion. However, the only places Plethodon sherando has been found is Augusta and Nelson County, Virginia. So unless you are in these counties, you have most likely not found this species. The only major characteristic that easily separates them from Plethodon cinereus is a shorter trunk and longer limbs. Personally, I found after seeing several of them that it was pretty obvious, however the official way to demonstrate this is to count the costal grooves between adpressed limbs. This is a fancy way of waying you bend the front limb backwards and the rear limb forward so the digits are pointing towards each other. Then counting the costal grooves along the body between the digits. As you can imagine this is very difficult to do with a live salamander. Measurements of salamanders we found a few weeks ago seem to also indicate that the shorter truck also means the tail will be proportionally longer, so that is another characteristic that can be eyeballed. Also there is only a small area of overlap between the species, so if you are at a location under 579 meters of elevation you can be pretty sure it is Plethodon cinereus and not Plethodon sherando. In contrast, if you are within the species range indicated on the map, and above 630 meters you can be more confident that it is a Plethodon sherando. As the below image shows you can see they are very similar, but the longer limbs and shorter trunk are somewhat apparent on the Big Levels Salamander (top) when shown in contrast to the shorter limbed longer trunked Eastern Red-backed Salamander (bottom).


The three northern most species on the map includes one federally threatened and one endangered species. Plethodon nettingi (northwesten most species on the map) is threatened primarily due to their small range and that they are found almost exclusively in areas with spruce and hemlock at high elevations (above 750 m). Similar to the Peaks of Otter Salamander, the Cheat Mountain Salamander has a dark body with color flecking on the dorsum (it’s back). However, where as the Peaks of Otter Salamander pretty much always has brass or gold flecking, the Cheat Mountain Salamander ranges from brass to white or silver flecking. Again, the ranges of these two species do not even come close to overlapping, so knowing where you are is more than half the battle in identifying them. In my experience it can look very similar to a Peaks of Otter Salamander, or it can almost look like a slimy salamander with lots of white/silver spots, except the spots are very tiny on the Cheat Mountain Salamander (adult Slimy Salamanders are also much larger), making them pretty distinguishable from any other salamander in the area.



Farther east we find the federally endangered Shenandoah Salamander (Plethodon shenandoah). As this species is endangered, I have no photos of them, however the only species that is easily confused with them in their range is, like is the case for many other species, the Eastern Red-backed Salamander. They should be pretty easy to tell apart as the Shenandoah Salamander has a narrower dorsal stripe, and more importantly a uniformly black belly, compared to the salt and pepper belly of the Eastern Red-backed Salamander.

Between the Cheat Mountain Salamander the Shenandoah Salamander we come across the Shenandoah Mountain Salamander (Plethoodn virginia, yes it is different than the Shenandoah Salamander) which was recently described by Highton in 1999. This species was previously lumped in with the Valley and Ridge Salamander (Plethodon hoffmani). Plethodon hoffmani is on the range map below and does overlap with this newly described Plethodon virginia. These are probably one of the trickiest two species to identify for the lay person. Without genetic analysis or a detailed geographic information it will be near impossible to tell them apart. Basically if you are in far the far eastern part of West Virginia near the border of Virginia, you may be in the range of Plethodon virginia, however if you are in Maryland, Pennsylvania, or western West Virgina or Virgina, then you are most likely looking at Plethodon hoffmani. As with many of these species they can be confused with the lead back phase of Plethodon cinereus. However, both Plethodon hoffmani and Plethodon virginia are more elongated and have darker venters (bellies) than Plethodon cinereus.


Now on to the species that have fairly large ranges. First and foremost the Eastern (Plethodon cinereus) and Southern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon serratus). These species will be very difficult to tell apart, luckily their ranges do not overlap, with the Eastern Red-backed Salamander occurring north of the French Broad River and the Southern Red-backed occurring south of the French Broad River. If I am literally adjacent to the French Broad River I would remain skeptical as it is possible the species has been transplanted across the river by people or managed to float across on debris and set up a population.





Moving along we have the ZigZag Salamanders which are currently broken into a Northern (Plethodon dorsalis) and Southern (Plethodon ventralis) species. These species are essentially identical meaning the only way you can distinguish them is through genetic analysis or the location they are found. The red-backed salamanders look very similar but have more costal grooves. Also as the name of the Zigzag implies, the dorsal stripe is not as even compared to the Eastern and Southern Red-backed species. Also, as was noted in The Amphibians of Tennessee book by Niemiller and Reynolds, Zigzag Salamanders are often found in wetter conditions. I found this out first hand when I stumbled on what I thought was a large number of red-backed salamanders in standing water, however it turns out they were my first Zigzags.




Last but not least there are the Northern (Plethodon electromorphis) and Southern (Plethodon richmondi) Ravine Salamander. Again like a few other species pairs discussed the two can only be distinguished by location and in the few locations their ranges overlap, genetic analysis. Both species have a dark body with light brassy flecking similar to several other species I have mentioned, however it only overlaps with Plethodon welleri and Plethodon hoffmani. The brass/gold blotches will typically be more distinct in Plethodon welleri. The Ravine Salamanders are also more elongated then any other comparable species including the Zigzag and Red-backed Salamanders. Just as a general observation the Ravine Salamanders tend to not only be generally more elongated but their tails seem longer and more robust then similar species.


One major take home point is that many areas have low species richness and identifying species in these locations will be relatively easy. However, there are some areas which I have circled on the map below that have substantial richness and may require more information about habitat, morphology, or even genetics to reliably identify a salamander. Also, an important note.  I made the colors transparent so the lighter colored orange is actually overlap between the red and yellow ranges, this is not Plethodon serratus as it might appear from a quick glance.  The Plethodon serratus range color is a dark orange is restricted to south of Virginia.


Salamanders as a whole are just a very interesting group of organisms. There is substantial variation and species richness that often gets overlooked because they spend most of their time hiding in the leaf liter and under rocks and logs. However, as they have finally been getting some press recently, salamanders play a critical role in forest floor ecosystems. They also come in some very vibrant and attractive colors and can have very interesting personalities.

If you want to learn more about salamanders of the Appalachian Mountains, I highly recommend the following books:

The Amphibians of Tennessee

Salamanders of the Southeast

The Amphibians of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

My next post will hopefully be about a successful start to my field season!

I spent a week in Georgia scouting field sites at the end of March. I found some great sites and saw some great animals, largely in part due to meeting up with Todd Pierson who is currently finishing up at the University of Georgia and knows the area well. As I mentioned in my previous post, we were able to find the Patch Nosed Salamander (Urspelerpes brucei) which was a real treat. I have been fortunate enough to see many of the micro-endemic salamander species like the Patch Nosed Salamander, San Marcos Salamander, Peaks of Otter Salamander, and Big Levels Salamander. The next leg of my spring fieldwork trip focused on checking up on low elevation sites in North Carolina and Tennessee and then finishing up by heading to Virginia to sample my Big Levels Salamander sites with William Ternes. Will Ternes, Celeste Wheeler, and myself will be presenting a poster on microhabitat use of the Big Levels Salamander at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists later this year.

I was able to find some cool animals during this trip, I tried to highlight some of them in this short video. I am planning on making my next post a somewhat informal guide to identifying small bodied Plethodon species. I found out first hand that some of the species can be very difficult to tell apart if you have never seen them before (even if you are experienced with salamanders), but once you know what to look for the task can be made a bit more manageable.   For now, enjoy the nice spring weather and go find some amphibians!


I had a good week in Georgia.  I did not get as much data as I would have liked, but that should have been expected given I had never visited any of these sites before.  I will come down again either later this year or several times next spring.  Despite my stay in Georgia being low on data, it was high on fun finds.  I tried to put together a little video of the trip.  One of the videos of Desmognatus ocoee has a little conversion error, but the rest should  look alright.  I will hopefully work out the kinks with video editing as the summer goes on and eventually add some narration to the videos to provide some more information.  For now, enjoy this video, I am off to Tennessee!


First off, another big thanks to the Explorers Club who awarded me the Exploration Fund grant for the third year in a row. This grant will help me examining the role of the Bogert effect in Plethodon jordani.

The first couple days in Georgia have been pretty uneventful as I have been visiting low elevation sites. Also, since this is my first time visiting all of these sites I have needed to explorer a bit. I have yet to find any salamanders; however, after learning my lesson last year, I have set up protocol for collecting species diversity and general microhabitat data. So no salamanders, but I still have data. I have also found a couple fun herps, including a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus) and an eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina).

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worm snake

I am more optimistic for the next two sites I am visiting because one of them is a known site for the recently described patch nosed salamander (Urspelerpes brucei) and the other site seems to be in a more remote area. I am hoping the next couple days will produce some nice Georgia salamanders!

Like the amphibians, I am reemerging after a long cold winter. Since my last post, which was many months ago, not much has happened in my research world besides applying for numerous grants to maintain sufficient funding to keep me moving this field season. I was also lucky enough to be on the Ohio University Graduate College Fellowship this year which allowed me the time to apply to more grants, better prepare for field work, and most importantly start my field season earlier. Many of my low elevation sites become much to warm for salamanders later in the year so an early start will help me fill in many of my sampling gaps. Also now that the field season is starting up, I am really hoping to keep updates coming much more frequently focusing on natural history observations during this spring and summer.

The 2014 field season kicks off Friday, March 21st when I head to northern Georgia. I will be working my way up to Virginia during this first trip before returning to Athens in early April. I will make a couple more trips down south before starting the bulk of my field work on May 9th. Below is my tentative schedule which I will try to keep updated. If anyone wants to come see come salamanders let me know!

I will also be attending the 2014 Plethodontid Meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma May 18th-20th. This meeting only occurs once every 5-10 years so I am really excited to get to participate in this event. Eighty talks/posters on plethodontid salamanders, how can you not be excited!?

For now, I will continue preparing for a long spring and summer of field work, be on the look out for a salamander filled post next week!


Well I am finally getting around to posting about my summer field work. I am going to post most of the photos here but the bulk of them can be found all in one place on my websites photo page.

I am going to quickly sum up my experiences as the summer progressed and include a few of the more memorable stories. However, since it is 2 months of work, going into detail for the entire time I would need 50 pages and no one wants that. Before we headed south I did some field work in Wayne National Forest, which produced some cool finds including a Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolinensis).


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This field season started for me on May 8th and finished up on July 15th. The original plan was to come back down to field sites later in the summer, however given my funding situation and the late summer heat, it proved to be a better decision to safe my money and wait until next year. From Fall 2013 to Spring 2014 I have the Graduate College Named Fellowship, I will then have the OCEES fellowship in the Spring of 2015. Basically, this means I do not need to teach during this time which will provide me with much more time to finish my research. So ideally I will be able to collect substantial amount of data the next two springs.

As for this past field season, Celeste Wheeler and William Ternes joined me to help with the research. We were crammed into the car with all our gear (pictured above). The season had a rather shaky start. The first sites we visited were down near the Elkmont Campground on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To our surprise, the salamanders were nearly impossible to find at these locations. We spent nearly a week search at several field sites in the area and only turned up a few Desmognathus species and a couple Plethodons at a couple of the sites. Overall, this was pretty disappointing given how easy it is to find salamanders in other areas of the Smokys. We did see some other cool wildlife including a worm snake.

We moved north in hopes of finding some better sites. One site near Cosby Campground near the northwest edge of the Smokys was very productive, as it has been in the past. This was a nice change and helped boost our spirits. We found several species of Plethodon here and a few other cool species.

We continued our trip north and once again found field sites that were very short on salamanders. This left me thinking three things, 1) they were never here, despite what look like good conditions, something about the habitat or location prevents salamanders from existing in high numbers, 2) they were here but disease or changing climate/habitat has pushed them out, or 3) it was the wrong time of year to find them. I am hoping for some of the sites it is merely number 3 which I can test out this Spring when I am on fellowship and can therefore get down to my lower elevation sites much earlier.

One fun part of this summers work was getting to stay at a bunch of new campsites. One of which was right on the Nolichucky River which made for a very soothing nights sleep.

This less productive part of the trip was focusing on low elevation sites primarily in Tennessee and North Carolina. However, as we made our way north things started to improve. The first really successful area was the field sites near Sherando Lake in Virginia. This area also contains Plethodon sherando (still in the process of sorting these photos so none are pictured) which is endemic to the region only existing in Big Levels (their common name is Big Levels Salamander). The field sites in this region were very productive so we not only found a large number of salamander species, but also some other amazing wildlife.


Probably the coolest find of the trip came on a trail off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We found several red-efts out walking around as we started down the trail.  Eventually, we found a Plethodontid  salamander and began establishing the presence and absence plots so we could record micohabitat data. AFTER we had setup both plots and began collecting data, Celeste was walking between the two plots and noticed a snake. She seem startled, but I assumed it was just another black rat snake or other common (and harmless snake). However, when I looked over I immediately noticed it was not some common snake we had seen several times before, but it was instead a perfectly coiled Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus! I was very excited because I have rarely been able to see the east coast rattlesnakes, in fact this was only the second time I had seen a Timber Rattlesnake in the wild. We tried to gather the rest of our data as quickly as possible before taking a few photos of the beautiful snake. The snake never rattled, moved quickly, or acted aggressive the entire 40 minute we were in the area. Overall, it was a great experience, and helped make Celeste and Will realize that snakes have excellent camouflage so they needed to be on the look out.





From Sherando we moved to the Camp Roosevelt Campground which was the northern most part of George Washington/Jefferson National Forest that I was using for my research.  We found some salamanders at these field sites, but the most exciting part of this leg of the trip was the emergence of the cicadas.  We saw (and heard) thousands of cicadas emerge from the ground at our campsite.  Having never seen this before, it was quite the treat,

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After Camp Roosevelt we moved to West Virginia and my first visit to Monongahela National Forest. This was my first trip to this forest so I was pretty excited, however, we immediately ran into some major technological issues. One, West Virginia has very limited cell phone service from what I am use to, and the campsite I chose was a good hour away from any sort of cell reception. Of course as soon as we got to the campsite I had electronic issues in my car including a blown fuse. I was able to change the fuse and get us running again, but that would not last. We ended up needing to get a hotel for the night and spend 2 days getting the car fixed which was much more problematic given I had no cell service. Ultimately the issue was fixed and we got to start field work but it was certainly a stressful time. Fortunately, Monongahela National Forest was awesome and outside of a few field sites, was very productive. These sites included some great finds like P. nettingi and P. wehrlei. We spent a grad total of 2 weeks in West Virginia before heading back down to Virginia.

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The first stop in Virginia was back at the Sherando sites, however by this time, things had warmed up and it was no where near as productive as the firs stop. Ultimately I will need to head back down specifically to do some microhabitat work on P. sherando. However, the second stop on our return trip to Virginia was Peaks of Otter, which has the very amazing Peaks of Otter Salamander, P. hubrichti. This is another species that exists in a very restricted area, but it very locally abundant. As well as finding cool salamander here, we also saw a Bared Owl along the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, followed shortly after by a bobcat with a kill (or roadkill) in it’s mouth. That was the first bobcat I had seen since I was in Florida, so I was pretty excited.

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The stop at Peaks of Otter lasted around a week and included several days where we got soaking wet with some of the biggest downpours we had to deal with this summer, but salamanders loved it, so I can’t complain.

We had another stop in Virginia near the Mountain Lake Biological Station where I was able to say hi to Caitlin Gabor and Andrea Aspbury who were both assisting with one of the REU programs there.

Will, Celeste, and myself finally made it back down to the Tennessee and North Carolina area were we bounced further south stopping at sites a long the way. There was some more great scenery especially once we reached the Smoky Mountains again. One cool salamander species that I was really hoping we would find was Plethodon yonahlossee. Luckily we managed to find two of them, including one at a new site which means I will hopefully be able to get more data on them over the next two years.

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We managed to stop in Asheville, NC for a two day break from field work. It was certainly nice to get our clothes cleaned and sleep in a bed especially after nearly two months of sleeping in a tent.

Our last two stops were probably the most memorable locations. The second to last was at Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area. The campground is one of the best in North Carolina and is situated on the South Toe River. I had high hopes for this location, because it was near several great field sites and the river supposedly contains Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). We manged to collect some good data, but we also had to endure nearly 7 straight days of rain. Our tents leaked, everything got wet, and the previously calm and clear river became raging and murky, so we were pretty miserable by the time we left. However, like most places we visited, there were upsides. At a nearby site Celeste also managed to find another gorgeous salamander, a Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) which was in a plot with two other genera of salamanders a Plethodon and a Eurycea.  We also visited Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi.

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Luckily, the last leg of our trip was spent at Purchase Knob. This research station is set on the eastern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Purchase Knob was donated in 2000 by Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore. Purchase Knob was built as a summer home, so it provides a very comfortable place for researchers to stay especially for ones who have come from less desirable conditions (like tents in the middle of a 7 day downpour). Our time as Purchase Knob was productive and also provided some additional cool wildlife sightings. However, compared to last summer we saw very few bear and elk. Despite being out over a month longer than last summer we saw only one bear and two elk the entire trip compared to 6+ bears and 40+ elk last year.

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Overall it was a fantastic trip, I regret not updating this blog more during the summer as I would have been able to add more detail. Hopefully, I can keep up next summer as I should have better access to electricity.

I close once again with some of the nice views around Purchase Knob.


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Travel Plans

Posted by Vinny under Field Assistants, Research

As the semester comes to an end the field season gets closer and closer.  As of now I am still tweaking my travel plans, but I have a general idea of where I am going and at what time. Below I have embedded an Excel spreadsheet which has my current summer itinerary. One tab lists all of the sites and what campground I am planning on staying at along with the approximate dates. A second tab lists the different campsites with nightly costs and amenities offered at each site. The color coding just associates sites together because they are close to one another. The blacked out sites are places I will probably not use, but I have permission to use if I need to add them on later. On the camping tab the color coding is for campsites that are in the same region so I may use one or the other (or a different one if I find something better). Everything is still up in the air, but this is a general idea of where I will be going. If anyone is interested in camping out and looking for some salamanders, let me know and we can try to arrange a spot to meet up.

Once I leave in early May (May 6th – 8th) I will have limited cell service so if you want to meet up during the summer, call and leave a message or send me an e-mail. I will get back to you whenever I get service again.

I will try to update during the summer whenever I have internet, but until then, I am off to do some science!