Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jordan's Salamander

A trail weaves through lush spruce-fir forest near the summit of Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These high elevation Appalachian woodlands are fascinating places to explore. They are filled with a spectacular diversity of plant life, which in turn spawns a fantastic assemblage of birds and other animals. Including salamanders.

While my main mission in the Smokies  did not involve amphibians, I just can't resist turning rocks and logs to see who might be home. And with a claimed two (2!) salamanders per square meter in some areas of the park, it'd have been folly not to salamander-search a bit. There are 31 salamander species in the Smokies (only 24 in all of Ohio), and some of them are extremely localized, occurring only or primarily in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'd of course love to see them all, but that'd take a lot of effort and time not available to me on this mission. But there was one species in particular that I really wanted to see, and I did.

Voila! The striking Jordan's salamander, Plethodon jordani (also called red-cheeked salamander). It was almost too easy to find these little beauties, and I must have seen a dozen or more without undue effort beyond turning a few rocks and logs. The salamanders in this genus - Plethodon; the lungless salamanders - originated in the southern Appalachian mountains, and this region harbors the greatest numbers and diversity of salamanders of anywhere in North America. Fully 8% of the world's salamander species are found here. It is said that the total biomass of salamanders in the Smokies is twice that of birds, and probably equal to that of the smaller mammals.

Jordan's salamander is named for an ichthyologist (fish scientist), David Jordan of Stanford University. I don't know the back story about how this recognition came his way - perhaps he discovered it - but Dave should be flattered to have such an exquisite creature bearing his name. Jordan lived some time ago, from 1851 to 1931, so I'll assume this salamander has been known for many decades. Yet, extraordinarily, its nest has never been discovered, so data on eggs or nest sites is unknown. The Smokies still harbor many secrets.

The other moniker, red-cheeked salamander, is logical and fitting. The brilliant red cheeks are probably an aposematic warning - the skin secretions of this species are nasty and the cheeks send a warning to would-be predators. As in other Plethodon salamanders, the skin is a vital organ. Jordan's salamander and the others have devolved their lungs and eliminated the energy budget associated with those organs. Instead, respiration takes place directly through the skin, which is rather like a large all-enveloping lung.

The Jordan's salamander is an emphatic punctuation point to the incredible and often extremely localized biodiversity of the Smokies. Even though this species can be locally abundant within the park, it is not known outside the park's borders.

UPDATE: Lee Casebere, of the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves, sent along this interesting back story on the naming of Jordan's salamander:

Hi Jim,

I read the entry on your blog regarding the Jordan’s Salamanders you found recently in the Smoky Mountains. I thought you might be interested in knowing that the naming of that salamander after David Jordan has strong Indiana connections to three individuals. The first connection is Jordan himself. David Starr Jordan was a well-known ichthyologist and later university president, and one of his first jobs was teaching in the biology department of Butler University in Indianapolis (the same Butler University of NCAA basketball finals fame the past two seasons). He left Butler for Indiana University where he again taught in the biology department. During his tenure at IU, he became president of the university at the young age of only thirty-four! He left IU to become president of Stanford University in California, where I believe he remained for the rest of his career.

While in the biology department at IU, one of Jordan’s students was a fellow named Willis S. Blatchley, the second Indiana connection related to this story. Blatchley was pretty much in awe of Jordan, and considered him very much a mentor. After college, Blatchley’s interests and accomplishments were many, and included such varied subjects as entomology, malacology, ornithology, herpetology & geology. He was the state geologist for the State of Indiana for quite a few years. His list of published papers is extremely long, and among his achievements was a treatment of Coleoptera that is still highly regarded today. Do a Google search of Willis Blatchley and many links will pop up!

And finally the third Indiana connection to this salamander -- In the summer of 1900, a man by the name of L.E. Daniels of LaPorte, Indiana was collecting mollusks in Tennessee. During his excursion, he collected several salamanders which he later gave to Blatchley. Among them was Jordan’s Salamander, which was undescribed at that time. Blatchley described the species and named it after his old friend and mentor David Starr Jordan.


Nina @Nature Remains said...

Wow, what find!
I would be turning logs along the trail, as well.
Thanks for sharing a peek underneath!

rebecca said...

I am a huge fan of all salamanders, but I must say, that is an especially fine-looking one!