Western North Carolina's abundant rainfall and high humidity produce cold, fast-flowing streams, damp rock crevices, and moist woodlands filled with decaying logs and leaf litter. These are all perfect habitats for members of the highly diverse order of amphibians known as salamanders.
Salamanders are extremely shy creatures, preferring to hide under submerged rocks, in damp caves, and beneath fallen leaves, limbs, and tree trunks. Like all amphibians, they were among the first creatures to inhabit the continental land masses. Their evolution from the fishes coincided with the appearance of the first forests during the Devonian Period more than 345 million years ago. Salamanders provide an important link in the food web. They prey on numerous aquatic and terrestrial insects, crayfish and other crustaceans, worms, mollusks, and the eggs of frogs and other salamanders. Salamanders are also sought after as prey by birds, mammals, and fish.
More than 35 salamander species are known to inhabit the mountains of North Carolina. Aquatic salamanders spend their entire lives in water, while terrestrial species inhabit damp upland forests. In between are those that live in moist caves, crevices, or woods but visit streams, ponds, and bogs in order to breed. Curiously, the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) lives and breeds as an adult in lakes, ponds, and streams, but its subadult form, or "eft," is terrestrial, preferring moist woods.
Depending upon the species (and the opinion of the observer), a salamander's appearance may vary from the ugly (hellbender) and the bizarre (mudpuppy) to the beautiful (spotted, red, and two-lined salamanders, and eastern newts). The high mountain ridges play a part in restricting the distribution of some salamander species and in causing variations among others. The shovelnose (Leurognathus marmoratus), a North Carolina endangered species, is limited to the four westernmost counties of the state, while the rare zigzag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) is found only in Henderson, Buncombe, and Madison counties. Usually associated with limestone areas in Tennessee, this may be a relict species.
Two salamander species, while reported in limited areas of Virginia, occur in a specific region of the North Carolina mountains. The green salamander (Aneides aeneus) is known only in Macon, Jackson, Transylvania, Henderson, and western Rutherford counties. Its occurrence is not widespread in these counties, but it appears in isolated populations. The common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) occurs only in the Upper French Broad River basin and is listed as a species of special concern in North Carolina.
Salamanders are delicate creatures and are easily injured. Observe them carefully, and avoid removing them from their habitat. Their importance to the stream and woodland ecosystems warrant the same respect given to larger and more familiar creatures of nature. These fascinating creatures hold clues for scientists studying man's early evolution from sea creatures.
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