By Greg C. Greer
August 21, 2010
Participants: Greg Greer, Carlos Camp
I left my home in Marietta, Georgia at 7:15 am, heading for North Georgia where I was to meet Carlos Camp for a morning of salamander hunting. Carlos is a biology professor at Piedmont College and his specialty is salamanders……with a specific interest in the animals that don’t even have lungs…….the Plethedon salamanders.
As I drove north, up Ga. 400 it became increasingly cloudy and soon I ran into rain. At first, just sprinkles then actual rain showers. I keep a voice recorder in my vehicle and for the past 40 years, have kept notes on my drives and some of the things I record are animals observed along the roadway…..both live ones and dead ones. To many people this may seem odd, but a great deal of knowledge, in regards to our native and introduced species comes from observations and / or salvaging road killed animals. On the drive up 400, there was a DOR (dead on road) coyote, a groundhog (woodchuck) and a number of “possums” and 1 raccoon. As I turned left on Ga. SR 19, at the end of Ga. 400, the rain became steadier. I continued beyond Dahlonega and entered the winding roads into the mountains. Here, not only were the roads wet, windshield wipers were in constant motion and there were pockets of fog. I actually enjoy the mountains at times like this as the combination of mountains, beautiful forests; rain and fog……just seem to make the sense of place more sensual. I drove up towards Woody Gap and in amazement, there were numerous cyclers making the long up-hill climb up to Woody Gap, this is an absolute downpour of rain. (I know people think folks like Carlos and I are crazy for tromping in the woods, in a heavy rain, looking for salamanders but these folks on bikes, with cars and trucks passing by….in fog and rain…..now that is CRAZY!)
I met Carlos at the prescribed time: (9:30 am). We loaded up our fanny packs with all of the essentials for salamandering……ziplock bags, small flashlights, noodle sticks (for coaxing salamanders from rock crevices) and Carlos had the essentials for collecting tissue which consisted of small scissors, small vials and a container with really good grade alcohol. Just as a note, getting tissue from a salamander is not greatly injurious to the salamander. A small bit of the tail tip is clipped and thus tissue is collected to run genetics on them. Salamanders also have a very unique ability of being able to regenerate…not only tails but also limbs….If you find this interesting, just Google Salamander regenerating limbs and see what pops up…..WOW!
So, Carlos and I began a hike ascending from our vehicles at 3,000 feet to an elevation of over 4,000 feet. We flipped logs and rocks and in the early going, we found only a few slimy salamanders, Plethodon chattahoochee…which were actually our quest as Carlos needed a sample series of a dozen animals from this particular locality. As the rain, thunder and lightning continued, the trail became a rivulet and we joked that we may end up finding stream salamanders on the trail if this continues. As the rain pummeled us, we began to find more salamanders as even the decomposing material under logs was becoming water soaked……a perfect niche for moisture loving creatures. Besides the slimy salamanders, I found a really beautiful seepage salamander, Desmognathus aeneus. The seepage salamander is one of the smallest salamander species and this adult was a very red individual and was only about 2 inches in total length. Seepage salamanders love the moss but this one was under a log. Near the top of the mountain, Carlos found an Ocoee salamander, Desmognathus ocoee, which is related to the seepage salamander in that both of them are Desmognathus salamanders. At the highest elevation of our hunt, we sat down on a log to do a visual inspection of the slimy salamanders being held within our plastic bags. This may sound easy but in a pouring rain, with lightening flashing around us….well, it is everything but easy. We were actually looking for some sign of little red spots on the forelimbs of the salamanders as Carlos had noticed this characteristic in salamanders from this location in the preserved collection at UGA. All of the animals we had collected showed no signs of red but all had small white or gold colored spots and flecking on the forelimbs.
Still in the rain, Carlos got a few tail tips to run genetics on the animals. We had 10 salamanders and needed 12 for Carlos’s additional work with the species so we turned more logs on the descent…..still in a pouring rain. We were successful in finding two more individuals at which time we headed straight down the rivulet trail to our vehicles. Before departing, we had a slight repair that had to be done on Carlos’s truck. When he arrived at our meeting point, his driver side windshield wiper was pointing south but his truck was facing west. So, he actually drove up Woody Gap in a pouring rain with a windshield wiper swinging in the air. He tightened down the holding nut, which had loosened, thus fixing the problem so he could drive back to Piedmont College with functioning windshield wipers
So, this is the world of a herpetologist who works with salamanders. Sometimes the best conditions are conditions when most “sane” people are snug in their homes, watching a ball game and eating potato chips. We chose to do what provides us with an immeasurable amount of enjoyment and excitement…..out in the elements making discoveries under every rock and log we turn…..what a great day we had!
Who is Carlos Camp?
Carlos Camp, is a professor of biology at Piedmont College and has been studying amphibians and reptiles in Georgia for 30 years. He received his MS in zoology from Auburn University, where he studied water snakes under the tutelage of Bob Mount. He earned his PhD under Whit Gibbons at the University of Georgia, where he studied the southern red-backed salamander (Plethodon serratus). Most of his research has focused on salamanders in Georgia’s highlands, including the discovery and description of the dwarf black-bellied salamander (Desmognathus folkertsi) and the recent description of the patch-nosed salamander (Urspelerpes brucei). Carlos is also one of the editors of the book, Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia, UGA press, 2008.