National Parks Journal: Why Great Smoky Mountains is ‘The Salamander Capital of the World!’

by Jon D. B.
Photo Credit: Getty Images, National Park Service

We all love a bit of black bear spotting in the Great Smoky Mountains, but did you know the national park is the “Salamander Capital of the World,” too?

If you didn’t, now you do! Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) holds this title because on any given day, the majority of vertebrae (backboned animals) inside the park – including us humans – are salamanders. Nowhere else on Earth can say the same.

Not only are salamanders unusually abundant in the Smokies, but they’re also incredibly diverse. 30 separate species are found in and around the park. Some can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. And there’s no one better to discuss all 30 species of Smokies salamanders with than GRSM’s own Science Coordinator, Paul Super.

Paul knows the Smokies’ superstars are their black bears. They’re this Outsider’s favorite animal, so he gets no argument from me there. Elk, too, are now a GRSM staple once more thanks to their reintroduction some 20 years ago. Yet there’s one other category of “charismatic fauna” people should embrace before entering the park, Paul offers. “They’re not megafauna or microfauna, but they’re ‘cute’ – and they are our salamanders.”

As Science Coordinator for Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) and Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at The Purchase, Paul brought his own amphibian biodiversity masterclass to our National Parks Journal. He’s led the Smokies’ scientific research for more than two decades now, so chatting up these beloved Appalachian amphibians was beyond a pleasure for this Tennessee native author and wildlife technician.

So sit back, relax, and get ready to learn everything you need to know about “The Salamander Capital of the World!”

Salamanders You’ll Meet in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are five families of salamanders and thirty-plus firmly described species in the park, as Paul explains. These families are: Cryptobranchidae, Proteidae, Salamandridae, Ambystomatidae, and Plethodontidae.

Southern Appalachian Salamander (Plethodon teyahalee) photographed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Outsider’s Jon D. B.

Some have sparked Appalachian imaginations for eons, such as the giant “snot otter,” or hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), which we covered in detail for our National Parks Journal here. At over two-feet-long, they’re the largest salamanders in North America. In fact, “The largest speciment, I believe, is 28-inches-long, and was found in a section of the park some years back,” Paul cites. “There are larger salamanders in Japan and China, but our hellbenders are the largest on our continent.”

But many smaller cousins roam the mountains and streams. Some of the more popular species you’ll meet visiting GRSM are:

  • Pygmy salamander (Desmognathus wrighti), the smallest species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber), a wide-spread species of fiery Appalachian amphibian
  • Blue Ridge two-lined salamander (Eurycea wilderae), a striking orange salamander with two prominent black lines running down both sides of the body from the eyes
  • Black-bellied Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) a chunkier black stream-dwelling species
  • Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), a beautiful dark blue-to-black salamander with yellow spots
  • Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus maculosus), an iconic species of salamander sporting large external gills that look like the ears of a puppy
  • Cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga), also known as the spotted-tail salamander, is a slender, bright orange with black spots, relative of the Plethodon and dusky salamanders
  • Hellbenders, of which the largest specimen on record was found within GRSM
  • Red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens), which is orangish-red during “teenage years,” Paul says, then matures into a green or yellow color with red spots
  • Red-cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani), a remarkable species of land-dwelling salamander not found anywhere else in the world

Even within the 10 species listed above, however, salamanders show a remarkable range of biodiversity. So what, then, makes a salamander a salamander?

‘Spring Lizards’? What Makes a Salamander a Salamander?

If you’re a fellow Appalachian native, surely you’ve heard the term “spring lizard” before. This term has been used to describe salamanders throughout American settler history. But salamanders are not lizards at all. Like frogs, salamanders are amphibians. Salamanders may resemble lizards, but all lizards are reptiles, not amphibians.

Reptiles have scales or scaly skin, where amphibians like salamanders have porous skin that is moist or slimy to the touch. Their eggs also feature a clear jelly, whereas the majority of reptiles lay more traditional leathery-shelled eggs.

Despite the term “amphibian” meaning an animal can breathe both in water and air, however, all salamanders do not inhabit both. Some spend their entire life in the water, while others will never set foot in it.

“We have species in our streams. We have species that do not enter into streams or bodies of water, but spend their whole lives on land, like the pygmy salamander, the smallest salamander we have,” Paul says of GRSM’s species. ” The red cheek salamander also spends its entire life on land, and is found nowhere else in the world.”

In the fascinating case of GRSM’s red cheek salamander, “They lay their eggs down in moist dirt, and the young go through a larval period in the egg and hatch out as little adults.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Lungless Salamanders

The rare spotted-tail salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) photographed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Outsider’s Jon D. B.

Spotted salamanders, in turn, will spend “maybe 300 days of the year or more burrowing underground. And then during a warm wet night during the spring, they will all come out and congregate in a temporary pool. They’ll breed and lay eggs there. And after a few months the young will climb out of the pool and go underground. Then we won’t see them again for another year.”

The majority of GRSM salamanders are in the family Plethodontidae, making them lungless salamanders. The Smokies are a major center of evolutionary diversification for lungless salamanders. Remarkably, 24 species make their home in the park alone, Paul adds.

As their family name implies, these salamanders lack lungs. Instead, these species exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through the walls of tiny blood vessels in their bodies. They “breathe” through their moist skin, mouths, and throats.

Regardless of anatomy, salamanders are all facing challenges, Paul says, due to climate change and ever-increasing pollution. Amphibians at large are an excellent gauge for the health of an ecosystem. And as Paul says, “We’re really hoping to keep our Smokies streams clean and clear to ensure a viable habitat for salamanders.”

Here’s to every Outsider and Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor doing everything we can to help salamanders thrive, too.