They’re elusive, colorful, covered in mucus, and an integral part of the local ecosystem currently threatened with extinction.
Having only been discovered in 2020, the green salamander has been a key species in the Southern Appalachian landscape for 12 million years, assisting with the process of nutrient cycling and playing a vital role in the food web. These amphibians feast on insects like mosquitoes and ticks while serving as food for larger predators. Environmental experts often regard the species’ well-being as a barometer gauging the health of wetland and forest ecosystems.
The nonprofit NatureServe considers green salamanders “critically imperiled,” and the state has recognized the amphibians as a “threatened species” and a “species of greatest conservation need.” According to scientist estimates, there are only a few hundred green salamanders left on the planet.
“The population of green salamanders has been declining for just about as long as it’s been monitored,” said Josh Kelly of MountainTrue, who has helped monitor a small population on Brushy Mountain. “There’s a very real chance that, if trends continue, the species will go extinct.”
Joseph Apodaca, a conservation biologist and geneticist hired by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), has been observing the species and their habitats for over a decade and claims the Brushy Mountain population is seeing a “zero growth rate.”
“Like many of southern Appalachia’s iconic salamanders, this species is facing an existential crisis brought on by habitat loss and climate change,” noted Ben Prater, Southeast program director at Defenders of Wildlife.
Due to its meager population, the salamanders are additionally at risk of diversity loss due to inbreeding. Even natural processes like soil erosion put the species in danger as Apodaca notes that the shifting environment on the steep slopes of the Brushy Mountain site threatens to cover nests with dirt, debris, and plant growth.
In June 2022, conservation groups banded together to petition the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect green salamanders under the Endangered Species Act, namely an at-risk population in Hickory Nut Gorge, a 14-mile long ravine in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“It has been clinging to the gorge’s walls for millions of years,” said Will Harlan, senior campaigner and scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But now, to keep holding on, it urgently needs the Fish and Wildlife Service to act.”
“This ancient salamander exemplifies the biological richness and history of the Hickory Nut Gorge,” said Apodaca, who also serves as the executive director at the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy. “Sadly, human exploitation of this fragile ecosystem puts it, along with scores of other species, at risk. Thankfully, there’s still time to take meaningful steps to protect the gorge’s irreplaceable biodiversity.”