Safeguarding a New Yet Age-Old Salamander Species

Recently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced some good news: The Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander (Aneides caryaensis) is under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act. That means the agency now has twelve months to decide whether to list it—and the stakes for this rare and beautiful species couldn’t be higher. 

Hickory Nut Gorge green salamanders were described as a new species just a few years ago, in 2019, by a team that included ARC Executive Director JJ Apodaca. But their story stretches back much further than that. 

Green salamanders (Aneides aeneus) are found throughout the Southeast. They are excellent climbers, thanks to adhesive toepads and dexterous tails, and they rely on their marbled green skin to camouflage them against the mossy, rocky outcroppings they call home. But when JJ caught one in a crevice in the Hickory Nut Gorge—a fourteen-mile-long canyon in the Blue Ridge Mountains southeast of Asheville, North Carolina—he noticed that it seemed darker in color and flatter than other green salamanders he had seen. 

Genetic work later confirmed his suspicion. These salamanders had been isolated in the gorge for so long that they had split off from other green salamanders an astounding twelve million years ago (compared to the less than 400,000 years humans have been around). 

These salamanders rely on the specific habitat the gorge offers; they are specialized to climb along its rocky outcroppings and flatten themselves within tiny crevices. Having such a limited range—and one faced with ever-increasing development—has its drawbacks. The remaining HNG greens, as we call them, number somewhere around a few hundred individuals, confined to only a few dozen known populations. That means that any factor like habitat loss, climate change, or disease could pretty much wipe out the remaining salamanders. Every single one is important to the continuation of the species. 

This is a species close to our hearts at ARC, and we are working to study and protect HNG greens. Just catching them is hard enough. To do so, we spend hours climbing steep hillsides to get to their habitat, then even more hours peering into tiny slivers of rock crevices with a flashlight, hoping to see the glint of a salamander eye staring back at us. 

When we do catch one, we survey it for chytrid and ranavirus, two diseases we are concerned could devastate the population if allowed to spread. Beyond the fieldwork, we are engaging with partners on multiple fronts to ensure that known populations are protected so that we can begin to increase population sizes and hopefully restore them across their native range. 

The decision to list a species under the Endangered Species Act can be complex. While a listing would afford the species some protections, it could also have unintended consequences. Learn more about their potential listing here.

During this process, we will support the US Fish and Wildlife Service in any way possible to ensure the right decision is made. At the same time, we will keep doing our part to recover the species because we can’t let the twelve-million-year story of this salamander end on our watch.