Georgia Salamanders To New Species

Who Is No. 1? Georgia Is In Salamanders, Thanks To New Species

Patch-Nosed Salamander (Urspelerpes Brucei)
Patch-Nosed Salamander (Urspelerpes Brucei)
Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Georgia Department of Natural Resources

SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. –-(AmmoLand.com)- The discovery of a startlingly distinct salamander and research that defined another species have given Georgia a slippery title: No. 1 in the nation for salamanders.

Scientists have documented 58 species in the state, more than a 10th of the salamanders known worldwide. The diversity is largely because of the state’s large size, its five physiographic regions and its share of the moisture-rich Southern Appalachians, described by Piedmont College professor and amphibians expert Carlos Camp as “the center of the world for lungless salamanders.”

Chance and technology also played roles in the newest additions.

Two graduate students looking for salamanders near Toccoa in 2007 found a tiny brown one unknown in that region. The find is making headlines. The patch-nosed salamander (Urspelerpes brucei) is not only the world’s smallest salamander in body size – and second-smallest at 2 inches long including the tail – it represents the first new genus of four-footed animals described in the U.S. in 50 years.

“It’s genetically not close to anything known,” Camp said.

This yellow-nosed salamander is also unique physically. Besides the miniature size, males are more distinctly patterned than females, a difference common to birds but not lungless salamanders, which breathe through their skin and comprise two-thirds of all salamander species.

Patch-nosed salamanders have since been found at five Georgia sites – all along small, upper Piedmont streams in steep ravines on the Chattahoochee National Forest – and one site in South Carolina. The original research group included researchers from five colleges.

Graduate students Joe Milanovich of the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and Bill Peterman of the University of Missouri discovered the patch-nose. The team also included Camp, East Carolina University professor Trip Lamb, Warnell assistant wildlife professor John Maerz and David Wake, a professor at the University of California Berkeley.

Camp and Milanovich are heading up further study with funding from The Environmental Resources Network. TERN is an advocacy wildlife group that supports the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section.

Compared to the patch-nosed, the brownback has a murkier history.

Specialists had long debated whether the salamander found in spring seeps from Birmingham, Ala., to northwest Georgia was simply a variant of common two-lined salamanders. Auburn University doctoral student Sean Graham and Elizabeth Timpe, now a University of Connecticut doctoral student, answered the question.

Their analysis, published this spring in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, confirmed that the brown, short and, in Graham’s words, “dumpy looking” Eurycea aquatica is a separate species. Considering genetic and physical characteristics, “When we looked at those two things together, everything kind of came into sharp focus,” Graham said.

The classification of flatwoods salamanders as two species this February kicked off Georgia’s banner year in the amphibian world. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized research distinguishing between frosted and reticulated flatwoods salamanders, both found in the lower Coastal Plain. As a result, reticulated salamanders were listed as federally endangered. The frosted is considered threatened. They are among only nine salamander species protected in the state.

Secretive but often numerous, salamanders are bellwethers of habitat change and an important part of a complex, eat-and-be-eaten food web on the forest floor, according to “Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia,” a definitive guide to the state’s herpetofauna.

Senior Nongame Conservation Section biologist John Jensen, an editor of “Amphibians and Reptiles” along with Camp, Whit Gibbons and Nongame Program Manager Matt Elliott, emphasized that the number of salamanders in Georgia has not increased. “All we’re really doing is increasing our knowledge of them,” Jensen said. Habitat loss and other factors are undermining salamander populations, he added.

Discoveries of new species highlight that trend. For example, Graham said that habitat for brownback salamanders has been dwindling. “We’ve been losing populations and nobody has been looking.”

The Nongame Conservation Section of DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division works to conserve animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats. The section receives no state funds, depending instead on grants, donations and fundraisers such as sales of the eagle and hummingbird conservation license plates. The plates are available for a one-time $25 fee. Details at www.georgiawildlife.com.

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