Blue North Carolina salamander, wildlife biology

Spotting Salamanders

Four Wildlife Biology students accompanied Michael Osbourn, PhD, on a weeklong field survey in Nantahala National Forest

In the middle of the night, deep in the Nantahala National Forest, several Lees-McRae students crept through the trees. Despite being full of animal life, the woods were eerily silent. The students progressed slowly under cover of darkness, trying to avoid dangers like briar bushes, yellow jackets, and rattlesnakes as they hunted for an elusive nocturnal creature that, in some circles, has become synonymous with North Carolina.  

No, they weren’t looking for Bigfoot, regardless of what they might tell you. The four Wildlife Biology students were seeking a much more valuable target—salamanders.  

Since 2009, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology Michael Osbourn has been conducting a long-term study in Nantahala on the effects of timber harvesting on terrestrial salamander species, specifically red-legged, Ocoee, and Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders. Each summer, he invites a group of current and former students to accompany him on his research trip. In July 2021, James Cadolino ’21, Jillian Rae ’23, Josh Johnson ’22, and Cameron Thiers ’22 packed their bags and headed south to the Highlands Biological Station to spend a week catching salamanders.  

Photos by James Cadolino

Salamanders: Environmental indicators 

Although they might be mistaken for lizards at first glance, salamanders—like frogs—are amphibians, meaning they require a water source to reproduce and generally live in water at some point in their life cycle. Some species, like the hellbender, live their whole lives in the water, while other salamanders live underground most of the time and only emerge once a year to breed.  

North Carolina is one of the best places in the world to study salamanders, as at least 65 species call the state home. The climate of western North Carolina is perfect for creatures who need mild temperatures and plenty of moisture to thrive.  

While North Carolina is considered the salamander capital of the world, salamanders are secretive and often don’t receive the same level of attention as other amphibians or reptiles (informally known as “herps”). Which is one of the reasons why, for those lucky enough to be in the know, salamanders are one of the most interesting animals you could dedicate your life to studying.  

Cadolino said his interest in salamanders began when he saw them in a beginner’s field guide he picked up in fourth grade.  

“They’re unique, they’re diverse, they’re secretive. They’re nocturnal, for the most part. You have to be out in the field at night for hours just searching.” he said. “And they’re known as environmental indicators.”  

Salamander skin is extremely sensitive. Many species breathe through their skin, sometimes lacking lungs altogether, and possess mucus glands that keep the skin moist. This makes the amphibians vulnerable to small environmental changes that might not initially impact other species, like toxins, pollutants, or changes in climate.   

“If you find a healthy population of salamanders in an area, that’s usually a good sign of a healthy environment,” Cadolino said.  

Their role as indicators means that a change in a salamander population in a given area might be the first sign that something new is affecting the environment. Researchers can observe salamander species to monitor and protect the environments where they live, which is why studies like Osbourn’s are so essential.  

North Carolina has more salamander biodiversity than any other place in the world. At least 65 distinct species have been identified in the state.

North Carolina has more salamander biodiversity than any other place in the world. At least 65 distinct species have been identified in the state.

North Carolina, Nantahala

Out in the field 

Salamander research—and herpetology in general—is not for the faint of heart.  

“The first day we got there, Dr. Osbourn was telling us about hell plot,” Rae said. “It was supposed to be this really hard plot with a bunch of briars…but I felt like every night we were there, each plot got harder to walk through. The briars just kept getting worse.” 

The team, consisting of the four Lees-McRae Wildlife Biology majors, Osbourn, and several Appalachian State alumni who had visited the site before, split their time between the Highlands Biological Station research lab and the field. The survey area includes multiple plots, some of which are healthy and verdant, and some that have experienced damage. In 2016, a fire burned through several of the plots, causing severe destruction. Other areas were the site of timber harvesting. The data from the survey would provide researchers with information about how the salamander populations were affected by the damage, and if the populations could recover as the area recovered.  

Cadolino, Rae, and Johnson camped out by the plots. They would start their surveys around 9 p.m. and spend the whole night systematically moving through the plots to find and bag salamanders. Some plots were so active the team could have spent the whole night in a single spot, while others were relatively bare.  

“The burned and cut plots had fewer salamanders, which supports what the study is looking for,” Johnson said. “We could do those plots in half an hour or less.” In comparison, it would sometimes take up to an hour and a half to move through the more populated plots.  

To find the salamanders, the students would walk forward a few steps at a time, keeping an eye on the ground and the trees (it turns out salamanders can climb). They didn’t want to disturb the terrain, so they couldn’t look under logs or rocks to find specimens or go after a salamander if it bolted into a burrow. The survey veterans, however, did pass on some tips to make the job easier.  

“The pros, Mike and Summer, would teach you tricks,” Thiers said. “Sometimes when they’re hiding in burrows, you grab a twig and try your best to make it look like a bug to entice them out of the burrow so you can grab them.” 

Another technique involved putting a bag in front of the salamander and startling it, so it runs forward. Salamanders also instinctively want to climb up, so if you turn the bag over them, they’ll start to crawl in. At first, the animal-loving students were nervous about hurting the fragile creatures, but they soon got the hang of it.  

“By the end, I was just grabbing fistfuls of leaves and hoping there was a salamander in there,” Rae said.  

Each bag was labelled with the exact location and time of the capture so that the salamanders could be released later. Since salamanders breathe through their skin, they were fine in the Ziplock bags as long as the bags had an air pocket and some damp leaf letter. 

The field team would go to bed around sunrise and get a few hours of sleep. At 1 p.m., they would bring the salamanders to the biological station for tagging.  

Back in the lab 

The second part of the survey involved marking the salamanders with fluorescent dots under the skin. By tagging the salamanders, the researchers can get a more accurate count of how many salamanders live in each plot and keep track of how the populations change over time.  

“We would find some that were recaptures from 2010, so they were old salamanders,” Rae said.  

After the amphibians were weighed and measured, they had to be sedated by being submerged in a solution of water, baking soda, and fish tranquilizer. Once the salamanders were asleep, the team tagged them using a color-based code. The colored dots were inserted under the salamanders’ forelegs and hind legs to create a unique identification code for each salamander that could only be seen with a blacklight.  

Unlike other tagging methods, like attaching a cord to a limb, the color-code process is permanent and doesn’t degrade over time. However, it does require some precision and can be daunting for new researchers.  

“It’s tricky at first, kind of learning the process, but once you figure it out, it became an automatic process of assembly lining these salamanders, getting all their data, then knocking them out,” said Thiers, who stayed at the biological station for most of the week to help with tagging and data entry.  

Although the lab aspect isn’t necessarily as exciting as being out in the field collecting specimens, it is rewarding to gather the data and see the conclusions that can be drawn from the work.  

“It feels really good to get all the lab work done,” said Rae. “You feel really accomplished with yourself.” 

The information from this specific study can be extrapolated to other areas that have experienced environmental damage and predict how they might recover.

The benefits of experiential learning 

For Cadolino, Rae, Johnson, and Thiers, the entire experience was a glimpse into their futures.   

“It definitely gave me a more realistic look into field work. This was some of the first overnight, long-period study and field work I’ve done,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of different surveying methods, a lot of stuff that would be to good use later in my career. And really just more what to expect going forward in the future with this profession.” 

The field study also helped the students identify what other skills might be useful for research careers. After the team received a few injuries—like yellowjackets flying into ears—and had some brushes with danger, Rae decided to enroll in the Wilderness First Responder course at Lees-McRae.  

“I was like, it would be nice to have a little bit of medical training, just in case something does happen,” she said. “And we’re walking on literally the side of a mountain, so the possibility of breaking a bone or falling is always there.” 

Despite the dangers, and the tedium of lab work, all four students left the experience more confident than ever in their career paths. The trip was a bonding experience, and they left feeling a stronger sense of camaraderie with their fellow students and with Osbourn. It was also an opportunity to participate in a live field study—an experience you can’t get in the classroom.  

While they aren’t sure yet where exactly they will end up after graduating, they all anticipate that field research will be a major component.  

“Of all the things I’ve experienced, I think research is my favorite,” said Cadolino, who organized a mini version of the Nantahala field study in the Elk Valley Preserve for his capstone project. “The more I’ve hung with Osbourn, the more I think about teaching maybe. I want to be the next Osbourn.” 

By Emily WebbMarch 03, 2022