Small Creatures/Large Lessons

Scientists conduct land surveys to discover what is living in an area and determine the health of the land and water. And it’s usually the smallest creatures that provide the most information.

HIGHLANDS — Lindsey Ebaugh doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.

“There’s one, it swam under there,” Ebaugh exclaims as she exams the world underneath a rock in the Kelsey Trail Preserve, a 17-acre nature preserve in the mountains near Highlands, North Carolina.

“Let the mud settle and the water clear and I’m sure we’ll see it again,” adds Ebaugh, a senior zoology major at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

The “it” she’s referring to is a seal salamander. There are dozens of varieties of salamanders living in this forest. The search for salamanders is what brought this group of students and environmental specialists to this preserve. That’s because the tiny salamander is vitally important to the health of the forest ecosystem.

“I think it’s important to know what species are here because some are endemic to an area,” says Whitlee Angel, a senior in environmental science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is also peering under rocks and leaves on the forest floor. “It’s important to know what’s here and if that changes over time and why.”

Time stands rather still in this old-growth forest of a few surviving hemlock trees not yet affected by the wooly adelgid, an invasive species that has killed off most of the hemlocks in the forests of the Eastern United States. There are also chestnut oaks, hickory and pine found in the forest. The Kelsey Trail Preserve was part of a larger estate that has been gradually broken up and developed over time. But the area that is now the preserve hasn’t been touched, which is why the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust bought the land — not only to preserve it but also to make it available to the public as a way to get back to nature.

The preserve is located in the Southern Appalachians and it protects some of the oldest mountains and mountain habitats in the world. The region is a mix of mountains, sedimentary ridges, limestone valleys and coves as well as broad basins. It is the perfect mix of habitats for salamanders.

In addition, the region is a temperate rainforest. So it is not surprising that as you walk along the trail, the sound of trickling water mixes with the crunch of leaves and branches underfoot. Water is the lifeblood of this area, which is another reason it's a perfect habitat for salamanders.

Researchers are scouring the forest floor looking for salamanders because the slippery creature helps keep this pristine forest in balance. Salamanders are voracious eaters. An adult salamander eats its weight in insects every two days. Remove the salamander from the ecosystem and the insect population would explode, spreading insect-borne disease and destruction. Lose the salamander and the system changes.

“There are more salamanders in these woods than any other vertebrate by mass,” explains Kyle Pursel, Stewardship Coordinator for the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust. “Put all the mammals together on one side of a scale and then put all of the salamanders on the other side and you would see the salamanders win. That’s because this is a biodiversity hot spot for species, animals and vegetation. The salamander is one of the more well known.”

Not only are salamanders important to the health of the ecosystem, but scientists consider salamanders a kind of early-warning system for water pollution and other ecological problems. 

Salamanders must live in a moist environment because they breathe through their skin. That permeable skin makes salamanders extremely sensitive to changes in the environment. And since the preserve is so wet, there are dozens of varieties of salamanders living under the rocks and leaves in the forest as well as in the tiny streams that snake down the mountain.

Habitat loss, disease, and water pollution all affect salamanders first, which is why scientists want to keep a count of the salamander population in an area over time. The long-term data set will indicate if the population is falling.

“It’s important to keep a measure of the salamander population over time to see if anything has changed, and if it has then the question becomes how do we prevent this,” says Angel.

“This is a special place because it is over 250 years old and it sits at a pretty high elevation of almost 4000 feet,” says Karen Kandle, the Associate Director of the Highlands Biological Station, which is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“North meets south in the Highlands Plateau,” Kandle continues. “There are lots of species that you find farther north but this is the farthest south they can live, and there are also species that are found father south but this is as far north as they live so it’s a really unique area.”

So far, with researchers finding several salamanders almost everywhere they look, it appears the salamander population, and their forest home, is doing fine.

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