Kevin Fitzpatrick photo
While some lungless salamanders have habitats ranging outside the Smoky Mountains all the way up to Canada or down through Florida, others are restricted to strictly the Smoky Mountains with perhaps a few spotted in neighboring areas.
The Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the “Salamander Capital of the World,” and not without justification. Housing more than 30 different species, the Smoky Mountains contain more salamanders than anywhere else in the world.
In fact, more salamanders exist in the Smoky Mountains than any other vertebrate residing or even visiting the Park. Five families of salamanders exist, and the biggest family of them all is the Plethodontidae, or lungless salamander.
As the name suggests, these salamanders lack lungs, breathing instead through walls of little blood vessels in their skin and the tissues lining their mouths. As a result, these salamanders must live in damp areas like under logs, in caves and streams, and only emerge from these areas during humid weather conditions. Currently, the Park houses 24 of species of salamander belonging to the lungless salamander family.
Of these salamanders, the black-chinned red salamander is one of the more common ones, living in elevations around 3,000 feet. While this bright colored beauty is common, its cousin and fellow member of the Plethodontidae family, the green salamander, is threatened. According to the National Park Service, though the green salamander had been documented in the park’s fauna collection, it had actually not been seen for 70 years. The green salamander is unique from its Plethodontidae relatives in that it spends most of its life on rocky crevices.
Most of the 340 species of lungless salamanders live on the forest floors of the Americas from southern Canada all the way down to Brazil. Though the lungless salamanders need to stay moist, that does not mean they need to be near water. For example, the pygmy salamander, a tiny creature generally found in high elevation spruce-fir forests, is often far from any stream.
However, most lungless salamanders do opt to stay near some water source. Both the black-bellied and the Junaluska salamanders, for example, can be found in swift moving streams around boulders and waterfalls. These lungless salamanders are both brownish in color and live in the Blue-Ridge area and of course in the Smoky Mountains.
While some of the lungless salamanders have habitats ranging outside the Smoky Mountains all the way up to Canada or down through Florida, such as the Seal and Ocoee salamanders, others are restricted to strictly the Smoky Mountains with perhaps a few spotted in neighboring areas. The Jordan’s salamander, noted for the yellow to red splotches on its cheeks, is one such species endemic to only the Park. The Jordan’s salamander has several closely related cousins, such as the imitator salamander, which also lives predominantly in the Smoky Mountains.
Like their Appalachian human counterparts, the lungless salamanders make up an incredibly large family in the Great Smoky Mountains. With a myriad of colors, plethora of shapes, and panoply of habitats, these salamanders truly reveal the diversity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, justifying its name as the “Salamander Capital of the World.”
— By Charli Kerns