By Will Kuhn, Director of Science and Research, Discover Life in America
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its inordinately high diversity of salamanders. Indeed, there are 30 documented species, ranging from the tiny pygmy salamander (Desmognathus wrighti) to the huge hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). Among the many groups of organisms living in the park, salamanders are perhaps one of the best studied (along with other popular groups like birds, mammals, wildflowers, and butterflies). In fact, the park’s list of known salamander species has not changed for decades. But there is a mysterious 31st species, found in the park only once, 91 years ago: the green salamander.
The green salamander (Aneides aeneus) is a handsome, slender-bodied species, whose back resembles dark rock that has been sprinkled with green lichens. Its range is in the middle to high elevations (1,600—4,200 ft.) of the Southern Appalachian foothills and much of the Cumberland Plateau, running from southern Pennsylvania to Alabama. Although typically found in shaded cracks of sandstone and granite, the salamander is also sometimes reported in trees.
The status of the green salamander in the Smokies remains a mystery. Only a single specimen has ever been collected in the park: in 1929 an individual was found under the bark of a tree on Mount Le Conte. A more recent report put this salamander near Grotto Falls after a rain, but that report was unconfirmed. No other park records exist for this species.
Although the green salamander can be locally abundant in good habitat, encounters are typically infrequent. It is possible that this species is just extremely rare in the Smokies, although several targeted searches have turned up empty-handed. It is also possible that it is locally extinct, perhaps due to historic logging in the Smokies.
Over the past 22 years, a massive effort has taken place to catalog every species living in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. While this effort has added more than 10,500 species to the park’s inventory, only 31 of them have been vertebrates like birds, amphibians, fish, and mammals. The vast majority of new discoveries are things like insects, fungi, and lichens. And yet, there are still discoveries to be made and mysteries to be solved, even among the salamanders.
Niemiller, Matthew L., and R. Graham Reynolds, editors. The Amphibians of Tennessee. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2011. pp 102—104.
Tilley, Stephen G., and James E. Juheey. Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies. Gatlinburg, TN: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2001. pp 40—41.
Paul Super and Becky Nichols, pers. comm.
Green salamander (Aneides aeneus). Photo credit: Discover Life in America