Winter is a busy time for the amphibian

Winter is a difficult time for many animals. Food is scarcer and the temperature is colder. Starvation is a huge threat.

Many mammals, amphibians and reptiles spend East Tennessee’s colder months hunkered down in burrows waiting for warmer weather. Even if they aren’t hibernating, animals like raccoons, rattlesnakes and bears become far less active to stay alive.

But for some creatures, winter is the busiest time. From deep in the Appalachian soil, to mountain streams, to sunlight forest pools, salamanders stir.

“In general they are pretty active in the winter,” said Stephen Nelson, herpetology collection and conservation coordinator for the Knoxville Zoo. “You’ll typically find them in pretty good numbers in late fall, early winter when a lot of them are moving around on the surface.”

Southern two-lined salamanders are found near springs, seeps, ponds and streams in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee.  They lay eggs in late winter and the hatchlings emerge in mid-spring.

Salamander capital of the world

There are more salamander species that call the Southern Appalachians home than any other place on Earth. There are 30 salamander species present in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out of the 550 known salamander species on the planet, 77 live here in our backyards. Their bright colors make them the living jewels of Appalachia.

According to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, the population of salamanders in the park is so high that they would collectively outweigh all the mammals in the park. All those hungry mouths keep insects under control, especially mosquito larvae in forest pools.

But salamanders are often hard to find, because many are reclusive, living hidden under leaves or deep in burrows. This time of year is different.

Zookeeper Stephen Nelson shows off different breeds of salamanders at Zoo Knoxville, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

This might seem a little paradoxical because salamanders are ectothermic or “cold blooded.” They don’t produce their own body heat. Other ectothermic animals, like snakes and anoles, are usually less active this time of year.

“Their lower thermal temperature that they are active at is much lower than most species of frogs and certainly most reptile groups.” said Brian Miller, a professor of biology at Middle Tennessee State University. “You’ll see them in some areas walking over snow.”

The forest floor provides a blanket of leaves to insulate them. On the coldest days, they dig downward or shelter in caves to take advantage of the ambient heat of the earth to avoid killing frost. Aquatic salamanders like mudpuppies can stay active below the ice, at colder temperatures than fish.

Black-chinned red salamanders are found at high elevations in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  There are four subspecies of red salamander spread all over the eastern United States.  Black-chinned red salamanders in our area finish their breeding season in December and their eggs hatch just before spring.

And for most of them, the forest floor is still full of food so many invertebrate are still alive in the leaf litter. Predatory salamanders that frequently feed on other salamanders have no trouble finding food this time of year.

Breeding season

Many salamanders come out to breed this time of year when forests are moist and quiet. As the trees go into senescence for the winter, they stop drawing moisture into their roots. As it rains, this water collects in temporary, vernal pools in the forest. These pools appear year after year and are the perfect habitat for many salamanders to lay eggs.

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