Chuck Denney-Narrator (UT Institute of Agriculture)
Easy to find. Hard to catch. A quick scoop of the net, sort through the mud and rocks, and you’ve made a successful capture. This slippery little sucker is a black belly salamander. The southern Appalachians are home to the greatest diversity of salamanders on the planet - with more than 30 species in the Tennessee Smokies alone. That’s for now. The future doesn’t look so good for the salamander.
Dr. Matt Gray (UT AgResearch)
“Currently there are about 43% of the amphibians globally that are declining. About 33% of amphibians are at risk of extinction, and that’s two to three times higher than birds or mammals.”
Those are bothersome numbers to Dr. Matt Gray. He teaches a class at UT’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources called “Amphibian Ecology and Conservation.” Today prof and students are on a field trip.
Nat Sound of Matt Gray
“Down here you will see about 5 different species right in the water.”
The students’ assignment is to turn over rocks and logs and find as many salamanders as they can. Then they gather back at the trail head and identify them.
“The very first thing you want to look at is the shape of the tail.”
Here’s a spring salamander - sporting UT’s school colors. But this is far from just catching critters for fun. The UT team is extracting DNA from salamanders by taking a little snippet of tail, which will grow back. They’re looking for what’s called a ranavirus - which causes more amphibian die-offs than any other pathogen in the US.
Dr. Matt Gray
“More die-offs from Ranavirus are occurring now than to our knowledge ever before. So why is this happening? So we’re building baseline information on the species that are infected. Are there areas in the Smokies that have hot spots of infection?'
Each site studied by the UT team has different species, and early research has documented that higher infection rates are happening at lower elevations. But the experts say that no matter how high you climb into the mountains, wildlife is vulnerable to the ranavirus. Students like Wildlife major Lacy Rucker believe they can have an impact here - helping these creatures to survive.
Lacy Rucker (UTIA College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources)
“I think it’s important because amphibians are environmental indicators. So if something is messed up in the environment, they’re going to be the first guys to tell you something is wrong.”
Clearly something is wrong with our amphibian population, and the question becomes can we make it right? This catch, clip and release project looks to protect a beautiful eco-system by making sure some of its inhabitants stay healthy.