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Slipping through the cracks

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Legally protected by state law, the streamside salamander can be found in eight counties in Middle Tennessee, including Wilson County. This species, which is very similar to the smallmouth salamander is brownish-gray to grayish black with numerous small, light gray speckles, has a stocky body and small head and grows to a length of four to six inches.
State zoologist David Withers and Naturalist Heritage biologist Sunny Fleming search for streamside salamanders in a wet wash in Cedars of Lebanon State Forest. The amphibian migrates to its breeding sites in the fall and has a prolonged breeding season that goes from December to April.
These streamside salamander tadpoles developed in crystal clear jelly-like balls lay against a limestone rock in the waters of Fall Creek near Cedars of Lebanon State Park. They are about ready to hatch. They will soon feed on and aquatic crustaceans, slugs, worms, insects and other arthropods.
State zoologist David Withers and Naturalist Heritage biologist Sunny Fleming search for streamside salamanders in a wet wash in Cedars of Lebanon State Forest. The amphibian migrates to its breeding sites in the fall and has a prolonged breeding season that goes from December to April.
Sunny Fleming, a heritage botanist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Natural Areas, holds a streamside salamander she found in a wet wash in Cedars of Lebanon State Forest. Finding them she says "incites a very child-like wonder." KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
State zoologist David Withers and Naturalist Heritage biologist Sunny Fleming search for streamside salamanders in a wet wash in Cedars of Lebanon State Forest. The amphibian migrates to its breeding sites in the fall and has a prolonged breeding season that goes from December to April.

Rare streamside salamanders like wet winters, dry summers

Streamside salamanders, aka Ambystoma barbouri, prove to be slippery, slimy, somewhat secretive amphibians.

But if you're hoping to spy one in its natural habitat, then wading a shallow, limestone creek on a winter day is likely your best bet.

There are 550 to 660 species of salamanders on the planet. Fifty-eight species claim Tennessee as home sweet home, and at least 22 of those keep cool and moist in Middle Tennessee.

The streamside sally lurks in Wilson, Rutherford, Davidson, Williamson, Sumner, Bedford, Marshall and Trousdale counties and possibly more. (The Sumner County occurrence had eluded scientists for decades and only was confirmed this February.) Their habitat is declining, but whether they are rare critters or not is still up in the air.


State zoologist David Withers offers the following tips to landowners for helping preserve the habitat of streamside salamanders.

Don't remove rocks from stream channels that might support this species-even if those channels don't look much like creeks in the summer. This species depends on those objects to successfully produce the next generation. Do not mow to the edge of these channels, leaving them to grow a shaded buffer. Find alternatives to herbicides and fertilizers. Keep mud and livestock out of these streams. If you turn over a rock in search for salamanders, please put it back as you found it.

If you should see eggs, larvae, or adults, or think you might have suitable habitat at home, contact state zoologist David Withers at or call (615) 532-0441.

For more info about salamanders, go online to: or or

"As one of just a handful of Tennessee species in the mole salamander group, they are unique in having a near obligate requirement to breed in the winter, in streams that are generally dry in the summer," said David Withers, a zoologist for the state. "They also need these streams to have abundant flat rocks, with cleaned washed bottoms where they can attach their eggs. Their coloration is such that they blend in perfectly to the limestones found in Middle Tennessee."

Meandering for salamanders

A late day in January proved fruitful for Withers and a few friends as they discovered an adult male and female of the species on the west side of Cedars of Lebanon State Forest and Natural Area. They likely are in the park as well.

"Whoo!" hollers botanist Sunny Fleming, who tilts a limestone rock upward while standing in the middle of Fall Creek to the east of the park.

"There's lots! They're taking advantage of all these rocks, There are easily a hundred of the eggs. I saw 'em alive and happy. They're so cute. They look like little tadpoles," she says of the creatures, anxious to break free of the clear sacs.

"I'm in the midst of species listed as 'Deemed in Need of Management' by the TWRA and petitioned for federal listing by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service," said Withers, also standing in the creek and inspecting hatchlings. "Now is the time to learn all we can about where they occur in the state.

"They gotta have water in the winter but like streams that are bone dry in summer. They have a wonderful strategy, dangerous as well, of being winter breeders. They take advantage of water that is only there in winter or after a big storm. They can't have too little water or too much water. They need the cover of rocks that have water flow above and below the rock. They use crayfish burrows and mammal burrows to hide as well."

Biologist flips for amphibians

Fleming, who works for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Natural Areas as a Natural Heritage biologist, monitors and helps with the recovery of federally listed plant species, says of these hermit-like amphibians, "I've become enamored of them."

In fact, she has begun the application process to enter the masters in biology program at Middle Tennessee State University.

"I was introduced to salamanders in college. A lot of my friends were herpetologists, and we would go out at night after rain storms and go herpin'. Most often we would find spotted or marbled salamanders," said Fleming.

She notes that the range of the streamside salamander "coincides with a handful of rare plant species, so these parallel distribution patterns actually clue us in to some of Tennessee's biogeographic history, one that we don't understand very well."

A 'rush' to find one

Describing the sensation of holding one in her hand, Fleming says, "It's a mixed bag. These creatures aren't the easiest things to find, so there's a rush associated with finding one. From a conservation perspective I know that they face an uncertain future. Their habitats in Middle Tennessee are undergoing rapid development and growth, and we haven't yet been able to quantify how this is affecting this species, but it's likely not doing them any favors. They're so peaceful and they're very slow (relative to other salamanders); minding their own business.

"I pick it up and look at it, and it starts to crawl around slowly on my hands. Time slows, and I just feel my heart break for them.

"On the other hand, finding them also incites a very child-like wonder. Their eggs are these beautiful crystal clear jelly-like balls, and the tadpoles develop inside them before they hatch. They glitter and they just look so perfect and calm, and you kind of want to be one to see what it's like."

Salamanders deserve respect

Odds are great that most Middle Tennessee residents have never heard of the streamside salamander, much less seen or held one.

Withers says, "I like to think that many folks would be curious just to know about the great variety of species that go unnoticed right under their noses. This one should top the list. These unassuming beasts don't ask for much, and generally stay out of sight most of the year. But they deserve our respect in many ways.

"The general consensus is that they range much further north, including into Kentucky and Ohio, but that the Tennessee populations are distinct genetically and have very specific habitat requirements."

He shares the fact that a Belmont University professor found the species in abundance in the Green Hills area of Nashville in the mid-1960s, though they were lumped with the closely related smallmouth salamander.

It may be coincidental, but the streamside has apparently declined or disappeared since the significant building boom over the past half century that transformed Green Hills into a residential/commercial area.

"We still have hope that some pockets may remain, but to date no further inventories have found the streamside salamander in that part of Davidson County. This is the poster child of one of the consequences of urbanization, development," declared Withers.

"They're more tolerant of an agriculture setting than urban. There's some tipping point where they drop out. How much of a buffer do they need to survive? We just don't know."

Why the decline?

Cause of Middle Tennessee State University biology professor Brian T. Miller said, "Habitat loss and alteration are the most common cause of decline of salamander species. Habitat loss includes but is not limited to the following: draining or otherwise altering wetlands, conversion of forests and field to housing developments or shopping centers, fragmenting habitat with roads (millions of salamanders are killed annually by automobiles as they try to cross roads to get to breeding sites), and pollution of water ways and terrestrial habitats, including increased siltation.

"Also, disease has played a role in decline of amphibians in general. Lastly, illegal harvest is known to affect salamander populations in some locations."

He noted that the streamside salamander lived in the Central Basin of Tennessee long before Europeans and their descendants settled here, and that this area is undergoing "unprecedented human population growth and consequent land development."

Miller said that the alteration of watersheds by roads associated with housing developments and lawns can affect water flow in the low-order (small) ephemeral streams, which might affect the duration that the streams flow and possibly prevent streamside salamander larvae from undergoing metamorphosis to the fossorial juvenile stage.

"Known populations are already fragmented, and many individuals can be found dead on roads during and immediately after rains. Many populations undoubtedly will be extirpated in the next 20 years. But perhaps other populations can be conserved, if the public is educated," he said.

Conserving a species

"People of this region, as in most regions, are protective of their heritage, saving historic buildings, setting aside battle grounds, highlighting traces used by settlers. In addition to the cultural and historic heritage, people can also be protective of their region's natural. But they cannot protect what they do not know.

"So, the public needs to learn about salamanders, and then share their knowledge with other people. Only when people learn about a species existence will they take any measures to protect that species," Miller said.

Added Withers, "How many other species can you name that breed in the dead of winter in streams that are generally bone dry in summer? They are such remarkable strategists and specialists, literally risking life and limbs to make their homes in some of our harshest habitats. And all they ask from us is a patch of woods and a rocky channel that runs perhaps no more than three-four months a year.

"Our hope is to learn whether or not this species is as truly rare as they appear to be in Tennessee. All evidence to date points to their occupancy in a limited number of hot spots and has shown that they don't just appear everywhere. However, being such a cryptic species for three-fourths of the year, we hope to find that they are far more widespread.

"Ideally," concluded the zoologist, "we will be able to protect a number of populations on public lands across several watersheds and work with private landowners interested in protecting populations on their own lands."

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at

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