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Be an Ambassador for Salamanders

Who are the Salamander Ambassadors?

Salamander AmbassadorsWe're a group of Friends of the National Zoo volunteers who are working to help the Smithsonian's National Zoo build a new home for salamanders from Appalachia—and to spread the word about these fantastic and increasingly threatened animals. Come visit us most weekends in the late spring, summer, and early fall in the Reptile Discovery Center to speak with one of us, learn more about these under-appreciated animals, to see amphibian artifacts, and to learn how you might help join in the effort to protect Appalachia's salamander populations.

Visit this page frequently to learn more about special events, tours, and other programs the Salamander Ambassadors are planning for the year.

Learn how you can help

Help the Smithsonian's National Zoo build a new home for the "Jewels of Appalachia"

The Smithsonian's National Zoo houses a wide range of endangered animals from far-off continents. But it's soon to be home to local treasures that are amazing—and amazingly in danger. Salamanders are found throughout our region, but did you know that some live ONLY in our region?

Long-Tailed SalamanderThe U.S. is a global hotspot for salamanders. There are about 550 known salamander species around the world, and almost one-third of them are found in the U.S. (most of them in the eastern U.S.). Appalachia contains about 77 species of salamanders, and about half of those species can only be found in Appalachia.

These "Jewels of Appalachia" have a tremendous diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes. While some are far more common than others (some may even be living in your backyard!), they all share a number of fascinating traits:

  • Salamanders are one of the most ancient forms of animal life—they have been on earth for over 200 million years.
  • Many salamanders can fully regrow a limb, producing a functional new limb within a few weeks (the only vertebrates to do this!). They can even regenerate brain and eye tissue. This makes them important subjects of medical research that could someday allow doctors to regrow damaged tissue for humans and repair conditions such as paralysis or brain damage.
  • Salamanders, like all amphibians, undergo dramatic changes during their lives. They start out with gills and are completely aquatic. At maturity, however, most salamanders develop the ability to live on land.
  • While some salamanders are very common, others have extremely limited ranges. The federally endangered Shenandoah salamander—found less than two hours from the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.—is only found on three mountain peaks in Shenandoah National Park and nowhere else on earth.

Spotted SalamanderWe need to be on guard to make sure these jewels don't disappear forever. Even though salamanders have survived three mass extinctions—including one that wiped out about 96% of life on earth—there are currently unprecedented threats to wild salamander populations, and half of them may not survive the current amphibian extinction crisis. Despite their resilience in some respects, they are very sensitive and delicate in others. When their numbers decline (and they are declining now in many areas), that's a sure sign of a serious problem in their environment.

One of the most serious threats is climate change. Salamanders need cool moist places to survive. The world is getting hotter and drier; temperatures in Appalachia are predicted to rise by 3 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. Salamanders have relatively long lifespans, but they do not mature or reproduce as quickly as some other aquatic animals. They may not be able to adapt to such radical change. Amphibians are particularly prone to pollution threats, as they are reliant on a clean water supply. Salamanders are also prone to the fungus chytridiomycosis (commonly known as chytrid) that is wiping out amphibian populations around the world and threatening at least one-third of the known amphibian species with extinction. Like most wild species, salamanders are also hurt by habitat loss.

Yonahlossee Salamander

The Smithsonian's National Zoo is working to protect amphibians, particularly Appalachia's salamanders, from all these threats. We have a number of scientists devoted to researching the problems and possible interventions or solutions, but we also know that one way to help is to ensure that some of these species will always have a safe home. So now, with the assistance of a group of volunteer "Salamander Ambassadors," we're working to build that home here at the Zoo.

Learn how you can help

Questions? Contact Rebecca Sohmer at 202.633.4456 or by email.