Protecting Our Natural Heritage in the Southern Appalachians

Author Barbara Kingsolver best captured the spirit of the Southern Appalachians when she said, “the flag of Appalachia should be a salamander.” For many, these mountains are embodied by a cool mountain creek, where every rock flip reveals a salamander. In fact, the Southern Appalachian Mountains—including parts of  West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia—contain some of the most important places for amphibian and reptile conservation in the world. Within the ridges, valleys, and streams are dozens of habitat types supporting a vast number of imperiled species that need our help, from our smallest turtle to the heaviest salamander in North America. 

At over one billion years old, these are some of the world’s most ancient mountains. And while glaciers blanketed the rest of the continent during the Ice Age, they never fully covered the Appalachians. So while the evolutionary clock was wiped clean elsewhere, the fauna that lived here survived and ticked on, evolving into a network of highly specialized species. This is best demonstrated by salamanders, which reach peak diversity in the Southern Appalachians (i.e., the “salamander capital of the world”). Given human development and climate change, many of these species need our help. We focus our efforts in PARCAs, or Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Areas, across the region, concentrated in North Carolina and Tennessee and spanning high-elevation spruce-fir forest, mountain streams, coves, and grassy bogs. 

We are conserving some species you may recognize, like the hellbender. This gigantic, wrinkly salamander can reach over two feet long, with a flattened body for sliding into crevices on the bottom of deep, cold, fast-flowing streams and rivers. 

In many cases, development has caused siltation in these waters, choking the spaces between rocks and increasing the temperature of the water. Hence, there is less oxygen for the salamanders to breathe. We work with public and private lands to restore watersheds by fencing cattle out of hellbender habitat and to install large slabs of rock they need for breeding and nesting. 

Our conservation efforts extend to lesser-known species, too, like the pygmy salamander of high-elevation spruce-fir forests. This is an extremely scarce habitat type—humans logged these mountaintop forests almost to eradication in the first part of the twentieth century. Now, only patches remain, and we think of them as sky islands because they are so isolated from one another. On those sky islands, pygmy salamanders live under logs and stones, eating soil mites and other invertebrates. They’re only two inches long and copper-colored, with a dark herringbone pattern splashed down their backs. To protect them, we support efforts to replant the spruce trees that create their forest habitat.

In the plunging Hickory Nut Gorge just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, we work with another rare and mysterious species—the Hickory Nut Gorge Green salamander, which our Executive Director JJ Apodaca co-discovered and described in 2019. This moss-colored amphibian evolved for life along cliffs and crevices and is a subspecies of green salamander found throughout the Blue Ridge mountains. Since populations of HNG greens, as we call them, are so small, we are surveying for disease so that we can catch any outbreaks before something can wipe them out. To do that, we clamber along steep rocky slopes to get to the crevices and then peer into the cracks with flashlights, hoping to see the glint of a salamander’s eye. When we catch one, we swab it and test for chytrid, a fungal infection that can devastate amphibian populations.

Alongside the many salamanders, some reptiles are hanging on here, too—the tiny, impossibly cute bog turtle lives in another niche habitat of these mountains. Bogs and fens are grassy, flooded meadows that historically dotted the landscape. But now, drainage for agricultural lands and development means that most of these habitats are long gone, and those that remain are isolated from each other. 

We restore the hydrology of bogs where we can, work with landowners to make their land friendly to the turtles, and survey for the species so we know where our populations are surviving and how we can best connect them. We also protect bog turtle nests each fall, giving hatchlings, which are just quarter-sized, the best chance to make it to adulthood.

Our work in the Southern Appalachians epitomizes what we do, with your help, at ARC. And these species represent all that we are fighting for and all we stand to lose in the Southeast. Each time we catch an HNG green or hold a baby bog turtle, we see an ancient story of evolution and a piece of our natural heritage in our hands. That natural heritage is ours to protect and conserve so that these species can roam the Southern Appalachians as they have for millennia. 

Take a look at our shop, and pick up a Southern Appalachians poster or hoodie to celebrate and help protect the beautiful and fascinating amphibians and reptiles in the region.