Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Saving Salamanders in Shenandoah

by Dan Stone

When you think about animals thriving in the Shenandoah Mountains, you probably think of white-tailed deer, black bears, or maybe woodpeckers. But what about salamanders? Both red-backed and Shenandoah salamanders are important members of the mountain community.

Scientists believe the endangered Shenandoah salamander, which is found on only three mountaintops within Appalachia, may be threatened by climate and habitat changes. To help this amphibian, Jennifer Sevin, a biodiversity conservation specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, has launched a salamander conservation program for the Zoo in Shenandoah National Park as part of her Ph.D. dissertation research.

“The Shenandoah salamander is a terrestrial amphibian that has a very limited range and requires cool, moist, rocky areas for survival,” says Sevin. “And even though they’ve been around for about five million years, scientists unfortunately know very little about what affects them and how we can protect their future.”

Shenandoah Salamander

Shenandoah salamander. (Brian Gratwicke/NZP)

Sevin and her team began observing the salamanders’ habitat range and population dispersal in 2007. During 2008, they surveyed 124 sites across three mountaintops, visiting each site nine times.

So far, Sevin and her colleagues have found no evidence of hybridization (breeding) between the red-backed and Shenandoah salamanders. They did discover, however, that Shenandoah salamanders breed in the fall and spring—a fact that had never been documented by any scientist.

But those aren’t their only discoveries. On a visit to Stony Man Mountain, Sevin and her colleagues found a Shenandoah salamander nest site—the first ever of its kind. “My field technicians and I were ecstatic with this find,” says Sevin. “The nest site is helping us understand the life history of this species and habitat conditions necessary for its survival.”

Chytrid, the microscopic fungus that can cause a fatal disease in amphibians, has appeared all over the world—even in Virginia and Shenandoah National Park. During 2009, Sevin’s team will conduct research to determine whether chytrid is detected on Shenandoah salamanders.

Along with more hybridization research, Sevin plans to study the competition between red-backed salamanders and Shenandoah salamanders in 2009. She believes the former are forcing the latter to remain in rocky areas on the tops of mountains.

“Conservation management of the Shenandoah salamander is dependent on understanding as much as we can about the species,” says Sevin. “We have already learned a lot about these amphibians and we look forward to finding out more this year about natural and human factors that affect them.”

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