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Local, regional biologists discuss federal protections for rare Appalachan salamander

The yellow-spotted woodland salamander is typically found on rocky outcrops.
Kevin Hutcheson
Center for Biological Diversity
The yellow-spotted woodland salamander is typically found on rocky outcrops.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last month that it would consider federal protections for a rare Appalachian reptile called the yellow-spotted woodland salamander. It comes as regional biologists have been advocating for it.

Named a unique species in 2018, activists at the Center of Biological Diversity are part of a petition to get the salamander on the endangered species list a handful of years later.

Will Harlan is the director of the Center’s southeast branch.

“In the past two decades, only 65 of these yellow-spotted woodland salamanders have been seen, have been even identified,” Harlan said. “So their numbers could be at a very low, dangerously low level.”

Advocates say that means protecting habitats targeted by mountaintop removal mining. Harlan says the yellow-spotted is known to inhabit shale and sandstone outcrops across the Appalachian Plateau.

“Endangered Species Act protections are not going to stop coal mining in Appalachia in any way,” Harlan said. “But what they can do is ensure that these last scraps of habitat for the yellow spotted woodland salamander are protected.”

The yellow-spotted is one of many types of salamanders that inhabit the Appalachian Mountains. Researchers call the region the “salamander capital of the world.”

“There are more species of salamanders here in Appalachia than anywhere else on the planet,” Harlan said. “This is a really important biological hotspot for salamanders.”

The salamanders have been found across 21 isolated locations across Kentucky, Tennessee and the Virginias. Scientists like Zach Felix, associate biology professor at Reinhardt University in Georgia, say they’re incredibly hard to find, even if you’re actively searching.

“You might go there ten nights in a row and never see one salamander even though you know that they've lived there,” Felix said. “So they're very rare. They're hard to find. They're just sort of in that sweet spot of super keen animals for me. And they're cute as hell, too.”

Felix was part of the team that helped label the salamander as a distinct species. It was originally thought to be a type of Wehrle’s Salamander native to Appalachia, but its coloring gave it away as unique.

“They have paired yellow spots down their back,” Felix said. “And I know for most people that's not maybe not remarkable, but when I first saw the animal, I thought this is a different animal.”

Felix says the idea of protecting it was a big reason for the research.

“That was definitely part of my motivation for undertaking this project was just the fact that you're not going to protect the animal just because it has yellow spots,” Felix said. “But if it's a different species entirely, then that affords it more protection.”

But Kentucky state herpetologist John MacGregor worries that because these salamanders are so hard to find, advocates might be pulling from unfinished data.

“It is so hard to find that we really don't have any true idea about populations, and of the nine sites in Kentucky, only three of them have been visited more than once,” MacGregor said.

That includes two sites in Letcher County and one in Harlan, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. MacGregor thinks the population of yellow-spotted woodland salamanders could be more continuous than what current data suggests.

“You just don't have a population here and another population 100 miles away,” MacGregor said. “We're talking about an animal that's terrestrial, walks slowly. It's not going to travel 100 miles so it's probably somewhat continuous. We just have to figure out where to look for it and how to find it.”

Other herpetologists, like EKU Division of Natural Areas Director Stephen Richter, say the process is worth at least going through.

“Sometimes the way to get that data is to list something, it’s just the way the whole process works,” Richter said. “And then we determine its status and maybe downgrade it, or we determine it does need preservation and critical habitat is designated.”

Richter also says getting those habitats protected is important for the other local species – and the humans surrounding it.

“That's something we have to, as a human, global population, understand,” Richter said. “Everything we're doing to protect other species, and the habitat destruction or the pollution, all these things that impact on them also impact us.”

The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has the rest of the year to do research of its own. After that, it will make a decision on whether the salamander’s status merits protection.

Shepherd joined WEKU in June 2023 as a staff reporter. He most recently worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as General Assignment Reporter. In that role, he collected interviews and captured photos in the northern region of West Virginia. Shepherd holds a master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communication and a bachelor’s in music from West Virginia University.
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