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Salamanders – Where to Spot Them and How to Protect Them

This week’s blog was written by Joseph S., a Brookies alumni. He is mainly interested in reptiles – especially snakes, amphibians, and fish. Joseph has many reptile species and both fresh and saltwater fish at home in the pond in his backyard. Joseph enjoys hiking and kayaking in national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges. He would like to become a herpetologist or toxicologist.

Even though the eastern United States has the highest diversity of salamanders in the world and some of them are brightly colored including yellow and orange, it can be quite challenging to find them. This summer, I settled to discover at least some of over 70 salamander species living in the Appalachian Mountains region.

White-spotted slimy salamander, Shenandoah National Park, VA

I have started in the most renowned spot for salamanders, in the Great Smoky Mountains also known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”. Being thrilled by the National Park Service’s statement, that the great majority of vertebrate animals, including human visitors, in the park on any given day are salamanders, I was expecting to find a couple of them in almost every stream I hiked along. However, my first day was quite disappointing, since I met many more human visitors than salamanders. I followed the instructions on posters in the park not to move rocks, because, the largest salamanders of the Great Smoky Mountains, hellbenders, sometimes reaching the length around 2 feet, lay eggs under them. Rearranging parts of hellbenders’ habitat might harm this sensitive species. It would be something to find a hellbender, but at the end of the day, I was excited finally spotting a tiny, camouflaged salamander. It was a fragile-looking brownish creature, which even did not give me a chance to take a picture of it. The most exciting discovery came the next day. The secretive lifestyle of salamanders was betrayed by the vivid color of a beautiful red salamander resting on a pillow of moss. It was more patient with me, and I documented it with my camera. Still, as a couple of salamanders found in the morning, it was surprisingly fast on its short legs. Since I already knew that salamanders are shy and cryptic animals, I came much better prepared to search for them during my September hike in Shenandoah National Park. With my camera ready to use, I checked moist spots around logs, rotten stumps, and the edges of shallow streams. It was cooler and more humid than 2 months ago in the Great Smokey Mountains. Along a wooded 3-mile trail, I counted over 40 salamanders consisting mostly of White-spotted slimy salamanders and small terrestrial Red-back salamanders.

Spotted Dusky Salamander, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Red Salamander, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

Even though I observed many salamanders in one day, this amphibian family is not abundant. Approximately half of all salamander species are listed as threatened. Since salamanders are very closely linked to their environment, the main threats for them include habitat destruction and water pollution. Salamanders might be small but they play a vital role in their ecosystem.

Brook Salamander, Rock Creek, MD

If a salamander is found, it is important not to touch or handle them. Salamanders have extremely sensitive skin that can be damaged even by a light touch. Logs and leaf-litter are important habitats where salamanders reside. Natural areas should be left as natural with minimum alterations.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Spotted Leopard Slugs

This week’s blog was written by Maddy C., a Ursids alumni. She loves learning about animals. Maddy thinks that the variations among species are fascinating and she likes researching animals that may not be appealing to other people. She is looking to major in animal sciences in college and become an animal behaviorist.

Though the idea of slugs may seem “gross” to some, the spotted leopard slug is a good example of how unique and interesting they are. Living in southwestern Pennsylvania, I see spotted leopard slugs very frequently. I always try to relocate them into a grass muddy area rather than on pavement, but it can be difficult work.

Spotted leopard slug on mulch near my house

One morning I observed over a dozen of these slugs on the walkway and garden mulch next to my house. Seeing these creatures so often, I came to wonder: what really are these slimy organisms? Despite having a multitude of names, “the spotted leopard slug” is based on the leopard-like spots on their mantle (the lump on their upper back) and long strips down their back to the tip of their “tail”. According to my research, spotted leopard slugs are an invasive species originating in Europe that typically live in damp locations under rocks, logs, leaves, or a variety of other items. They must stay wet in order to produce their sticky mucus which is vital for their survival because it allows them to move more easily and helps them eat. Speaking of which, spotted leopard slugs are known to eat fungus, decaying plants, carrion, and even other slugs, both from their own species and from other species. Because of this, they can actually be somewhat helpful for one’s garden because they decrease populations of more detrimental slug species.

Same spotted leopard slug on white pavement.
Spotted leopard slug facing camera.

The most interesting thing about spotted leopard slugs, however, is their reproductive methods. Spotted leopard slugs are hermaphroditic meaning they have both “male” and “female” reproductive organs. Although they do not self fertilize, as this would decrease genetic variability among the species, this trait is extremely helpful because it allows them to mate with any other member of their species. Instead of spending their time and energy searching for a mate of the opposite gender, finding any other spotted leopard slug will do. Once two slugs are ready to reproduce, they begin a unique mating ritual. First, they move to higher ground, like a stick or outcropping, one slug following closely behind the other. Then, together they descend by creating a mucus-based “rope” allowing them to have an open, vertical position. I won’t get into detail about the next part, but once they are done mating, one spotted leopard slug will climb back up the mucus “rope”, partially eating it in the process. The other slug will drop down to the ground, and they part ways. The slugs eventually lay clusters between 50 and 130 clear eggs that become milky white as the babies develop. When they are ready, the tiny baby spotted leopard slugs will emerge from their eggs and go their separate ways. Spotted leopard slugs are generally solitary animals in the wild, but have been observed to form close relationships in captivity.

The sources that the author used can be found here, here, here, here, and here. The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

January Student of the Month – Shane P.

Our outreach student of the month for January is Shane Pothering!

Shane is an avid fisherman, and of course, attended our virtual PA Brookies field school this past summer.  He is an active participant in his school’s Trout in the Classroom project, and has been hard at work on all sorts of projects concerning conservation and our waterways.


Most recently, Shane has been enjoying some outdoor activity, hiking, fishing, and checking the chemical and biological health of the Schuylkill River .  He has also been creating educational posters to place next to the trout tank in his classroom. 

When he is not out on the water or hiking through the fields, Shane is also helping the next generation of conservation leaders through our student-driven Pay It Forward program.  Shane is committed to, in how own words, “creating change,” and he is certainly doing so – he has raised $400!  The Pay It Forward program directly benefits next year’s class of conservation ambassadors – check out Shane’s fundraising webpage by clicking here.

We are deeply impressed with Shane’s work ethic and commitment to conservation, and very proud of his accomplishments.  We know he will continue to do great things in the future, and are looking forward to watching his journey!


The Dock

This week’s blog was written by Micaela J., a Bucktails alumni. Micaela is interested in pursuing a career in engineering, although she hasn’t decided what type of engineering she would like to go into yet. Last summer Micaela attended Northampton County Junior Conservation School which sparked her interest in the environment and how we impact it. That program led her to learn about the Wildlife Leadership Academy, which she soon wanted to attend because of its focus on conservation and learning about the plants and animals in our environment.

You know how we all have that one safe spot that we always can relax at? Well, Lake Wallenpaupack is my calm space where I can relax and find peace. My grandparents built a house there in the ’70s, and when my family goes to visit, I always go down to the dock. Since my grandparents’ house is positioned on a hill, there are over 70 steep steps that wander through the trees to get down to the lake. No matter the time of day or night, the view from the dock is worth every step.

The docks edge

When I reach the end of the steps I tenderly balance my way across the rocks that line the edge of the lake shoreline. In the beginning of the summer, the gray rocks are all underwater, but by the end of September, the water level of the lake has lowered, revealing the once submerged rocks. Standing where the lake meets the rocks I take a seat on one of the larger cool rocks. Closing my eyes I can hear the subtle waves crashing on the shore around me. I can hear a breeze whisper through the trees behind me, almost as if they were admiring the autumn weather. The leaves of the beech, chestnut oaks, birch, and soft branches of the hemlock and white pine dance in the soft wind. As a boat passes by, the waves crash harder by my feet, as if trying to wake me from a dream.

Summer’s ending

I slowly stand up and wander over to where the dock begins. Stepping onto the dock, I can feel my balance shift, adjusting to the water that sits, always fluid, below the dock. I pass the empty slips that hold my neighbors’ boats over the summer until I reach the end of the dock. When I get there, I take a seat, take off my converse and socks, and roll up my jeans just above my ankles. Slowly, I lower my feet into the lake, feeling the cool, crisp water as my toes break through the water’s surface. I lean backward, my feet still in the water and my body lying on the dock, and stare at the clouds above my head. They twist and swirl above me in the fall breeze like wisps of cotton. As waves hit the dock, I can feel the wooden slats rock and hear the metal bolts and hinges clank as the waves gently move under the dock and towards the shore. As I am laying there I get lost in thought and lose track of time. When I come back, I sit up to see the sun setting behind the mountains across the lake. The reds and oranges dancing and reflecting on the water. The beauty of these sunsets never ceases to amaze me.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

My Discoveries at the PA Grand Canyon

This week’s blog was written by Sierra R., a Bass alumni. She attended the Wildlife Leadership Academy this summer because it looked like a good opportunity to further her education and to give her a deeper look into different career fields. Sierra’s hobbies include hiking, nature journaling, Girl Scouts, and theater.

The Pine Creek Gorge is an amazing gem of PA. It lies in the Tioga State Forest in between Leonard Harrison and Colton Point State Park. Often called the PA Grand Canyon, it covers 47 miles of protected state land and holds a variety of wildlife. During my visit to Leonard Harrison State Park, I got to document some of the plants and animals as well as the outstanding landscapes that make up the ecosystem of the gorge.

The overlook at Leonard Harrison State Park Visitor Center

As soon as I arrived at the main overlook, I found some very unique wildlife. An especially-exciting find was a porcupine resting on a pine tree branch, overlooking the valley. Although porcupines are nocturnal, they occasionally can be spotted during the day in trees foraging for food like the one I spotted. Along with the porcupine, I saw turkey vultures swooping through the open canyon. In the earlier hours of the day, I also spotted an eagle.

The porcupine I saw sitting in a pine tree at the overlook.

After taking a few pictures, My family and I began our descent down the Turkey Path. While it is only 1.7 miles, it is all on a hill, making it a bit more challenging. The long uphill at the end is worth it, as the trail has beautiful landscapes, with large rocks and plenty of trees and ferns. Along the path, I found some of my favorite plants like Jack-in-the-pulpits with fruit turning a bright candy red.

A Jack-in-the-Pulpit with bright red fruits

Another personal favorite that I spotted is the maidenhair fern, which I found on the hillside near a set of trail stairs. Maidenhair ferns have a unique leaflet and stem shape. They prefer moist shady areas to grow as their leaflets are rather delicate and not very drought resistant.

A maidenhair fern I found on the Turkey Path.

As we descended further down to the bottom of the gorge, we came to the beginning of a waterfall. Because of the dry weather, not much water was flowing. Although, The rocks alone were an appreciable sight. Eventually, part of the waterfall did have water trickling down its front and lead into the Pine Creek that flows through the bottom of the gorge.

The PA Grand Canyon is one of Pennsylvania’s best natural wonders. If you ever get the chance to visit it in person, I highly recommend it. I am so thankful I got the opportunity to share some of the little features that make it so special.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.