Visitors flock to North Carolina to enjoy our beaches and mountains, cities and towns, but it may surprise many to learn our state is a world attraction for herpetologists – scientists like myself who study amphibians and reptiles. After all, North Carolina boasts at least 60 species of salamanders, more than any other state.
Salamanders are tailed amphibians, closely related to frogs, and the conservation network Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation has designated 2014 the Year of the Salamander. What better place to celebrate than here in North Carolina?
Some species are unique to our state. The aquatic Neuse River waterdog, an 11-inch, brown salamander with black polka dots and bushy red gills, is found only in the Neuse and Tar river drainages. The terrestrial Cheoah Bald salamander, with shiny black skin and red legs, has a global distribution of less than 6 square miles over Cheoah Bald, in Graham and Swain counties. The similar Jordan’s salamander, with red cheeks rather than legs, is found only within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling our state’s border with Tennessee.
North Carolina salamanders have long been the subjects of scientific research. A few days after graduating high school in Ohio in June 1931, a precocious, 18-year-old salamander enthusiast named Worth Weller visited Grandfather Mountain to find more individuals of an unusual black and brassy salamander he had found there the summer before. On return to camp with a sack containing more specimens, Weller fell from a cliff to his death, tragically ending short a life and a promising career in herpetology. The new species was named Weller’s salamander in his honor.
New species continue to be found in North Carolina, most recently with the discovery in 2010 of the northern pigmy salamander – a diminutive, bronze salamander found in the high spruce-fir forests north of the French Broad River valley of Western North Carolina and adjacent Tennessee and Virginia.
Salamanders use chemical cues to recognize members of their own species for mating. As a result, many species have evolved without changing their external appearances. Herpetologists overlooked many of these similar species until new methods that examine protein or DNA differences among populations helped to discover them.
In June 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation making the marbled salamander our official state salamander, an effort championed by 15-year-old Durham Academy student Rachel Hopkins on behalf of the N.C. Herpetological Society. Celebrate our salamander diversity by visiting the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences to see many species up close.
Dr. Bryan Stuart is research curator of herpetology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.