Until recently, 30 species of salamander were thought to live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But a recent article in Bionomia, the international journal devoted to biological nomenclature, announced that what is believed to be one species of salamander has in fact been found from at least four different species, two of which live in the Smokies.
This discovery removes the black-bellied salamander from the park’s salamander list and adds both the Cherokee black-bellied salamander and the black-bellied salamander, bringing the total from 30 to 31 species in the park often referred to as The Salamander Capital of the World.
Will Cohn, Director of Science and Research at Discover life in Americaa non-profit park partner who runs a now 24-year-old effort to describe all types of parks and their relationships to one another.
“These salamanders are what we call a cryptic species,” Kuhn explains. “Although they look alike, their DNA is different, which indicates that they probably do not interbreed in nature, even in places where their populations overlap.”
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The two men responsible for the Bionomia paper and decoding the two species are David A.
“I first sampled the black salamander in 2008 while working on my thesis,” said Beamer, PhD, of Nash Community College and Amphibian Foundation. “At the time, I was focused on sampling geographic units defined by river banks and ecoregions in which Smokies was a unique sampling area. No one else had included samples of Blackbellies from Smokies in any published genetic work, so no species was known to exist. Not recognized in Smokies.
Beamer’s thesis put the name of the placeholder for the substantia nigra, Desmognathus quadramaculatus F, into use. Then in 2010 he began collaborating with Pyron, and the two were awarded a National Science Foundation grant to engage in genome-wide studies, which would reveal entirely new and distinct species.
“Many of these species were first hinted at through early genetic work in the 1960s through the 1990s by a Smith College scientist named Steve Tilly,” says Byron, associate professor of Robert F. Greggs at George Washington University. “Other research from 2005 began to solidify the idea that it was new – around the time Dave was starting his graduate studies on sex.”
In scientific protocol, the original authors of a species name those species. In this case, Beamer and Pyron had an idea that might bring recognition to the sense of place and the people who made these mountains their home long before Great Smoky Mountains National Park even existed.
“I met Caleb Hickman at the 2008 Southeast Ecology and Evolution Conference in Tallahassee,” Beamer recalls. “We were both graduate students at the time.”
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Hickman is now a superintendent of fisheries and a wildlife biologist in the Eastern Division of the Cherokee Indians. He and Beamer have kept in touch over the years, often talking about the topic of salamanders.
“In 2015, Caleb invited me out to the Bioblitz and made eight slots for the Beamer Lab. This was an honor because spaces were limited, in part because tribal facilities were required for all surveys,” Beamer recalls. “By this time, I had already realized that there were different types of Blackbellies in the Smokies, and I had discussed with Caleb the possibility of them being outside the GSMNP in the Tribal Lands. It turned out to be true!”
On one occasion when Beamer and Hickman met each other at a conference, Hickman mentioned that he was trying to create a book of all the tribal names for amphibian and reptile species in the Eastern Band lands.
“I immediately realized that my work would make his job more difficult,” Beamer says. “But, at the same time, I realized that it represented a great opportunity to directly engage the tribe in the scientific description of some of their biodiversity heritage.”
Out of respect and appreciation for the tribe, Beamer and Pyron eventually asked the eastern band of Cherokee Indians to guide them in naming one of the Smokies. The tribe held a meeting of native speakers to coin the name Cherokee, “gvnigeusgwotli,” which roughly translates to “black belly.” Therefore, the authors called the black-bellied Cherokee salamander Desmognathus gvnigeusgwotli.
For the scientific name of other Smokies species, Pisgah chose Black-bellied salamander, Beamer and Pyron Desmognathus mavrokoilius, where the Greek “mavrokoilius” means “dark belly”.
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These two species are known to only overlap in the northeastern part of the park and cannot be separated without genetic testing. Also, they are not thought to be particularly close to each other in the salamander family tree. Back in 2019, when researchers needed samples of salamanders from the park to determine the true identities of the two new species, Byron worked closely with Paul E. Soper, science coordinator at the Appalachian Heights Science Education Center.
“We thought we knew all the vertebrates in the park, but through cryptic species, cryptic species, and human-caused transmissions, we keep adding to the list,” Sober says. “We added the Cumberland slithering turtle in 2003, the green tree frog in 2012, the brown-headed hazel trench in 2013, the lesser weasel in 2014, Ross’ goose in 2017, and both the Lapland longspur and nine-banded armadillo in 2019 .”
Because we humans have a keen interest in identifying backbone organisms, most vertebrates were classified long before the biodiversity inventory of all taxa began in 1998. Since then, only about 35 new vertebrates have been added—about half of them are birds. .
“This represents 0.3% of the total species added since ATBI began,” says Cohn. For comparison, insects make up 56% of finds, and fungi – including lichens – make up 17%. There aren’t many vertebrate species compared to some of the more diverse groups, which is why this rarity is so interesting.”
With another new species announced in the next few weeks, it’s possible that additional cryptic salamanders will be out there in plain sight just waiting to be discovered.
DLiA’s third annual Salamander Ball on Wheels competition will be held October 7 at the Parkway Drive-in Theater in Maryville, Tennessee. Learn more through DLIA.org.
Frances Figart is Editor of Smokies Life and Director of Creative Services for 29,000 members Great Smoky Mountain Society, a nonprofit educational partner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you are interested in reading a full magazine article on the separation of Beamer and Pyron among salamander species, contact her at email@example.com.