On a spring morning, biologist Dr. J.J. Apodaca set out with a flashlight to look for salamanders that squeeze themselves into rock crevices--and, in particular, a newly discovered salamander, the Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander. J.J. was one of the scientists who identified the species, just last year.
J.J. and two research assistants made their way through the forest, slipping on steep banks, beating back brambles, and climbing over downed trees to reach a rock outcrop by a rushing creek. Nodding trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and violets were blooming on the forest floor.
In the cracks, a glimmer could mean a salamander--a flashlight beam reflecting off its slick skin. Tiny Carolina mountain dusky salamanders wriggled along narrow cracks. Far back in a cavity was a faint glisten, which J.J. identified as a Blue Ridge gray-cheeked salamander. He teased out a crevice salamander--a fast, slippery creature as big as his hand, with dark, speckled skin. But no sign yet of the Hickory Nut Gorge green.
From Crevices to Treetops: This was the time to look--early spring when the salamanders have emerged from hibernation and are moving around the rock. Like regular green salamanders, Hickory Nut Gorge greens are arboreal--meaning they spend much of their lives in trees. As the weather warms, they climb up nearby trees and spend the warm months in the forest canopy, eating insects. Around July, females go down to stake their claims on their favorite crevices. The females compete with each other for nesting sites, defend their eggs from predators, and rub the eggs with protective secretions from their skin, until the eggs hatch months later. Then, they tend the young for another month. All the while, males remain in the treetops, returning to the rocks only in late fall when it's time to hibernate again.
Finally, in a slim, vertical crack, J.J.'s flashlight found a flash of green--moss-green specks on a near-black body. It's a Hickory Nut Gorge green, a salamander found only here, in the lush forests and steep, rocky terrain around Gerton, Bat Cave, and Lake Lure.
To say the Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander is newly discovered doesn't mean that no one saw them before. People have been finding green salamanders in the gorge for ages, and those who paid close attention to salamanders could see subtle differences in the ones that you found in this part of the world. But it took genetic analysis to establish that the green salamanders in the gorge are actually a unique species.
One thing that we know about Hickory Nut Gorge green salamanders is that there used to be a lot more of them. Surveys indicate that populations have dropped about 56 percent in just 20 years. J.J. says, "When we realized how different the Hickory Nut Gorge green was, we had to rush to get that news out because it's not only so different but it's also in so much trouble."
Fighting for the Underdog: "I've always been drawn toward fighting for things that can't fight for themselves or that not a lot of people are fighting for," J.J. says.
As a boy in central Florida, he says, "I grew up catching amphibians and reptiles and that sort of thing and I grew up generally loving being outdoors and in nature." In college, he started studying to be a wildlife vet. His professors got him fascinated by frogs, then salamanders. Today, J.J. is the director of conservation and science at the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy and the founder of a consulting firm called Tangled Bank Conservation.
It was several years ago, while he was a professor at Warren Wilson College, that J.J. found himself in Bat Cave, making the case for conservation to a group of Episcopal nuns. The sisters belonged to the Community of the Transfiguration, which had long owned over 400 acres in Bat Cave as a retreat, and they were considering conservation options for their land.
The sisters decided to protect their land as a place for learning and discovery. They protected 410 acres and conveyed most of that land to Conserving Carolina as the Teaching and Research Reserve. Last year, a neighbor added more land to the reserve, which now spans over 500 acres and borders Chimney Rock State Park. The reserve is available for students, researchers, and educational programs and it was one of the sites where J.J. and his colleagues discovered the Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander.
Cryptic Species: Green salamanders have a wide range, stretching from Alabama to Pennsylvania. But J.J. and other scientists suspected there could be unique species among them, especially considering that North Carolina's greens were separated from other populations by the Great Smoky Mountains.
Their genetic analysis found that green salamanders in the Hickory Nut Gorge actually have significantly different DNA than their relatives--even a different number of chromosomes. "They were many times more divergent than most species are from their closest living relatives," J.J. says. Their analysis found that Hickory Nut Gorge green salamanders have been developing independently for roughly 10-12 million years. (Compare that to a mere 400,000 years for humans.)
Last December, a team of scientists including Austin Patton, J.J. Apodaca, Jeffrey Corser, Chris Wilson, Lori Williams, Alan Cameron, and David Wake published their findings. Their paper identifies the Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander as a new species.