VESUVIUS, Va. (WFXR) — The group was flipping over rocks and overturning logs, laughing and shouting as they made discovery after discovery.
You might think it was a pack of children at play, but it wasn’t.
Instead, it was a group of biologists and wildlife experts.
So, what had them unleashing their collective inner child?
Something pretty rare, Big Levels salamanders.
How special are Big Levels salamanders?
They can only be found on a few select mountaintops in the Blue Ridge. They’ve adapted to and evolved to live in very specialized ecosystems that biologists call “sky islands.”
“These salamanders have been isolated up here for however many hundreds of thousands of years,” said Virginia Department of Wildlife (VDWR) State Herpetologist J.D. Kleopfer. “They all have that same ecological niche, high-elevation isolated mountaintops.”
Because of that isolation, they are sensitive to any changes in their environment.
“They’re vulnerable to climate issues,” Kleopfer said. “Obviously, because of their environmental constraints, they’re not going to move down the mountain, across the valley, and back up the other side. They are where they are, and they only have one way to go, and that is up. And, they can’t go up.”
So, the state has partnered with federal and local wildlife agencies to guarantee Big Levels salamanders have the habitat they need to sustain their numbers. The United States Forest Service manages a lot of the territory that the Big Levels salamanders call home, and their program of conservation appears to be working.
“All the research suggests that where this salamander is located, they are doing well,” says U.S. Forest Biologist Danny Wright.
Though they are small, Big Levels salamanders have a huge impact on Virginia’s unique ecosystem and the people who live within it. Because they are so sensitive to environmental changes, they can often indicate issues that will affect people, before they become evident. And, they are also vital on multiple levels to everything that surrounds them.
“There’s literally thousands of them per acre, so they’re consuming thousands, even millions of insects every year,” said Kleopfer. “They’re tilling the soil. They’re used for food for a variety of animals; everything from bears and turkeys to ringneck snakes and birds, so yeah, their value to these systems is probably grossly underestimated.”
While they are isolated, people still visit the places Big Levels salamanders live. Wildlife resource managers want you to be proud of and enjoy these special creatures and encourage you to get out and experience them, but with a few rules to make sure the salamanders continue to thrive.
- Enjoy them with your eyes, take photos or video
- Avoid picking them up
- After flipping rocks and logs replace them exactly where and how you found them
- Never take salamanders home
“There are some ethics to your activities out there,” Kleopfer advises. “You want to minimize the damage you’re doing, or not do any damage whatsoever. If you flip a log or rock, try to put it back into place just as you found it, because it takes years for that little micro-habitat to develop underneath that rock or log that’s suitable for that salamander.”
53 species of salamanders call the commonwealth home, and the Big Levels salamander is one of three that can only be found in Virginia. The VDWR has a page dedicated to all of the salamanders found in the state and even publishes a guide featuring all 53 species.
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