Passport to Nature

Year of the Salamander

Finzel's Finest

Join us in the field as we search for elusive salamanders.

“Salamanders are so cute that it’s kind of shocking that they’re also these voracious predators,” Deborah says. “If you’re a little detritus-dwelling invertebrate, they’re your worst nightmare.”

By Lindsay Renick Mayer

Kim Terrell, wildlife biologist for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, is standing knee deep in a swamp. Water spills into her field boots and soaks her pants, but Kim pays no attention to the wet or the cold. She is too busy imparting amazing facts about a slimy mass of gelatinous goo in her hands.

These eggs belong to the spotted salamander — not to be confused with the red-spotted newts (which can re-grow bits of eye and brain tissue) that we netted moments before. Masses and masses of eggs line the swamp’s edge. Up close, we can see the circular outlines of individual eggs, each cradling its own tiny speck of life.

This is a great find: We’re in search of salamander diversity on a cool, rainy Earth Day at The Nature Conservancy’s Finzel Swamp Preserve in western Maryland. Also along are Conservancy ecologist Deborah Landau and WAMU 88.5 reporter Lauren Landau (no relation).

Kim lists the salamander species we might find, if we’re lucky: red-spotted newts, spotted, Jefferson, Northern dusky, redback and slimy.

But there is one, the crème de la crème as far as color and beauty go, that Kim has only seen once before in the wild. And she’s determined to find one for us today: the long-tailed salamander.

Buying Swampland: A Good Deal for Salamanders and People

Finzel Swamp is one of 13 Appalachian preserves The Nature Conservancy owns in Maryland, and it’s no coincidence that we wound up here in celebration of the Year of the Salamander. Appalachia harbors the most diverse community of salamanders in the world, and pristine Finzel Swamp provides a perfect sanctuary: varied habitat, moisture and clean water.

As a frost pocket that runs several degrees colder than the surrounding area, Finzel Swamp also offers these creatures a haven from climate change, which has caused some Appalachian salamanders to shrink. Salamanders face other threats, too, including pollution, sedimentation, disease and over-collection.

“It’s not just salamanders and other wildlife that benefit from our protection of Finzel Swamp,” Deborah says. “This big swamp complex is the headwaters of the Savage River, which flows down into the Potomac River — our source of drinking water in D.C. The Nature Conservancy actually helps to keep that water clean before it even reaches our water supply system.”

On the Trail of the Elusive Long-Tailed

After we make our way to a nearby pond, Kim excitedly calls us over to where she is quickly and systematically lifting rocks no bigger than her palm. She’s spotted a long-tailed salamander and tells us she’ll never forgive herself if she lets it get away.

Kim is a dynamic force both here and in the herpetological world. A young scientist who embraces Twitter (@SnotOtters), she posts photos of salamanders in her hands for #ManicureMonday. A passionate advocate for amphibians and self-professed “cat lady of salamanders,” Kim and her infectious enthusiasm have us all scrambling to be first to see the elusive long-tail salamander.

With a little wrangling, Kim finally holds up one of these majestic creatures. Skinny, with a tail comprising 60 percent of its body length, the salamander is amber yellow and speckled with black dots. Muppet-like eyes and a characteristic salamander smile round out its look.

Within moments, Kim has four adults in hand. We pause so we can each post a #SalamanderSelfie with the long-tailed salamanders and admire these jewels, which are actually quite common in the wild, Kim tells us.

Just extremely difficult to find.

The Nightmare Under Your Feet

Although we see only a few salamanders here and there, Kim tells us we’re walking past tens of thousands of many different species. In some parts of Appalachia, a patch of forest the size of a typical backyard can contain more than 2,000 salamanders, making them the most abundant vertebrate predator in many forests and headwater streams.

“Salamanders are so cute that it’s kind of shocking that they’re also these voracious predators,” Deborah says. “If you’re a little detritus-dwelling invertebrate, they’re your worst nightmare.”

We continue up into the forest to look for terrestrial species. There, too, we have great luck, carefully pulling red-back salamanders out from under rocks and logs. Deborah finds a salamander that has shed its tail, a strategy that allows it to escape predators. The tail will regenerate over the next few weeks.

These salamanders, like most, don’t have lungs. They breathe through their skin, requiring less energy to survive.

“They’re able to feed on tiny, tiny bugs that other animals wouldn’t be able to live off of,” Kim says. “And because they can feed off of these tiny little bugs, they have a whole special, important niche in the world.”

Salamander or Newt?

Before we end the day, Kim finds a red eft, the juvenile stage of a red-spotted newt. She explains that newts are unique because they start out in water, spend some time on land and then return to water as adults. They use a combination of a magnetic field and sunlight to orient themselves toward or away from the water, she explains.

Salamanders, on the other hand, tend to leave the water and remain on land.

It’s one more amazing fact that we intrepid herpetologists-for-a-day file away to share with friends as we jump back into the truck, wet and muddy and sure of one thing: Every year should be a celebration of America’s treasure, the salamander.

Listen to the WAMU story here.


You’re invited to travel along as we explore our region's top nature destinations and conservation stories. Discover these special places and meet the people who are protecting and restoring nature.


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