As summer vacation’s last few weeks slipped by, and the fall semester was threatening to begin, I snuck away from State College for a…vacation? Oh, heck no! Instead, I threw some clothes and the stats section of my bookshelf into my ’93 Buick Century with the bad Throttle Position Sensor, and wended my way down to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute just outside of Front Royal, VA. While there, I took a two-week intensive course in doing statistical analyses using R, but I won’t bog you down with esoteric details about the 8 hours/day I spent staring at computer screens or the 4±2 cups of coffee I drank each day.
On our weekend off, I decided to take advantage of our proximity to Shenandoah National Park and search for salamanders. I had already found some common species, such as Northern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus) and slimy salamanders, but on this weekend I was targeting a far rarer species, the Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah). This species is a montane endemic and exists on only three mountaintops, Hawksbill, Stony Man, and The Pinnacle in the entire world. The species is actually restricted even further as it only occurs in one specific habitat, fairly dry and north—facing talus slopes. While this salamander is federally endangered due to its tiny range, it is also likely one of the best protected salamanders in the world, as its entire range lies within the national park.
Superficially, the Shenandoah salamander is similar in appearance to the Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus). This salamander is one of the most common in the eastern United States and can often be found under rocks, logs, and other cover. It has been extensively researched because individuals can be reliably recaptured under the same objects year-after –year due to its territoriality, and because it occurs in very high densities (over 1,000/acre!). In some areas, redback salamanders may exceed or equal the biomass of birds or small mammals in a forest!. Shenandoah salamanders can be differentiated from these more common redbacks in the field by several means: the stripes on their backs are less thick, they are often larger, and they have more rounded heads. However, the most accurate way to identify them is by their bellies: while redback salamanders have a mottled “salt and pepper” pattern on their venters, Shenadoah salamanders have a more solid, black belly which sometimes includes larger metallic flecking. Shenandoah salamanders also share another similarity with redback salamanders: both have two “phases”: redback and leadback. In Shenandoah salamanders, redback-phase individuals have a reddish, orange, or yellowish stripe down their backs while leadbacks have no stripe and instead are a uniform dark grey.
After carefully researching and planning my trip, I set off for the park on a perfect afternoon, or at least it was perfect for finding salamanders. For an August weekend, it was cool (a high of 70) and had been drizzling all day. The ground was soaked, and the park was most full at the reststops and lodges, where damp hikers were drinking lots of hot chocolate and lamenting their inability to make much of the parks famous overlooks. I targeted a section of the Appalachian Trail that ran along the north face of Hawksbill mountain, through some prime talus slopes and right by the type locality of the species, the place where the first officially recognized specimen was collected. Near the trailhead, I found individuals of P. cinereus, the common species, but a good sign that salamanders were active under cover objects at the time. After a little more hiking into the heart of the Shenandoah salamander’s range on Hawksbill, I found was I was looking for in a cove with some nice, deep soil and leaf litter: Shenandoah salamanders! To my happiness, both color morphs (redback and leadback) were present.
After finding at least 5 in one cove, I decided to just enjoy the hiking, but flipping rock and logs right on the trail yielded plenty more individuals, including multiples under the same cover object. P. shenandoah was, by far, the easiest to find and most locally abundant endangered species I’ve looked for. I hope the that National Park Service can continue to do a good job protecting these species and keeping these small populations in good health. While the weather wasn’t ideal for reptiles, I did chance across one nice find later in the day as the sun broke through the cloud layer in the late afternoon. This large ratsnake was chilling (or rather, trying to get warm) by basking in the vegetation on a west-facing fire road. Hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to see a few more cool herps this fall before everything beds down for the winter!