Blue Ridge Country - May/June 2017 - 16
At Home in the
A rare species of salamander is found only in Virginia's
Shenandoah National Park.
by Nancy Henderson
On a cool, rainy spring evening, on one of the three highest
mountaintops in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park,
a hiker just might be lucky enough to spot one of the
park's rare, namesake amphibians when it comes out to
forage for food.
"Most people think of salamanders and they think
of creeks. But in this case, it's a terrestrial salamander
that spends a lot of its time underground in rocky
slopes," says James Schaberl, the park's chief of natural
and cultural resources, of the aptly named Shenandoah
salamander. "It's not going to be on the surface all the
The endangered, 3-inch-long striped critter lives in
roughly 6,000 acres in only one known place in the
world: the park. A close cousin of the red-backed salamander, which is commonly found throughout the
state, the indigenous Shenandoah species is believed
to have been more widespread thousands of years ago,
with a range that included the Shenandoah Valley and
other parts of Appalachia. So what happened?
"The people who've done the analysis on the animal and its history indicate that it was [impacted] by a
larger climate change," says Schaberl, noting that the
lungless creature prefers moist soil draped in a thick
layer of clouds. "A long time ago, the valley was colder,
wetter and more suitable for this species. But as things
changed, the animal retreated to places that are more
environmentally suitable. So it's pretty much at the last
place it could go-these higher elevations. There are
many species like this in the Appalachians, where you
have these endemic, high-elevation terrestrial salamanders perched at these mountaintops.
"It's certainly nothing we've done," Schaberl adds, referring to the reason the salamander chose the Shenan16 BlueRidgeCountry.com
doah National Park, and specifically the north-facing
Hawksbill Mountain, The Pinnacles, and Stony Man
Mountain, as home. "It's just the land form itself," he
says. "Within a certain radius of here, about 20, maybe
30 miles, we have the highest range of mountain peaks
in the central district of the park. And that's where it
ended up. We just assume that this is its place to be."
While warming temperatures have undoubtedly
played a role in the dwindling population of Shenandoah salamanders, some experts theorize that competition from their hardier, red-backed kin may have greatly
contributed to the decline. Since the 1960s, says Schaberl, scientists have been paying attention to the mostly-nocturnal critter and the issues it faces; it was listed
as federally endangered in 1989 because of its restricted
range and potential threats. To protect the salamander
from outside dangers, National Park Service biologists
carefully manage visitor use and landscape alterations
in areas where the amphibians live. They are also studying its risk of extinction and possible preservation methods, such as making vegetation more hospitable for the
Shenandoah and less so for the red-backed.
"If we have to do something more radical in the future, where we have to move animals somewhere to save
the species," Schaberl says, "we'll certainly consider that."
And by all means, if you see one on the trail, please
don't pick it up. "Their skin is very sensitive, and our
skin has oils and salts that could harm the animal,"
Schaberl says. "Plus, we're very warm compared to these
animals. They are about the same temperature as the
environment, and our skin is near 100 degrees. We can
have fun getting close and looking at these animals, but
we ask people to approach them, look at them closely,
but not handle them."