October 8 was a cool, foggy and breezy night on Reddish Knob when 10 Headwaters Master Naturalists and friends joined Billy Flint of James Madison University to look for and learn about terrestrial salamanders. The thick fog made driving up the narrow road tricky, but conditions were perfect for salamanders.
The Cow Knob Salamander is an endangered species found only on Shenandoah Mountain and Elliot Knob. We also hoped to see the endangered Shenandoah Mountain Salamander. A quarter mile walk down the road from where we parked on top of Reddish Knob brought us to the Timber Ridge Trail on the east slope. This proved to be great habitat for Cow Knob Salamanders.
We hit the jackpot and saw 8 or 9 Cow Knob Salamanders of various ages which had ventured out from beneath rocks and logs on a perfect night for them to feed. Billy Flint explained how they preferred rocky, north-facing slopes and moist conditions to keep them from drying out.
Wet weather will bring out up to 10% of the area’s population according to Billy. They take turns emerging from the ground to check out feeding opportunities. Like other terrestrial salamanders, the Cow Knob Salamanders lay their eggs in the ground, nurture them there until they hatch and do not have an aquatic stage to their life cycle as do many other salamanders.
We did not, unfortunately, see any Shenandoah Mountain Salamanders. These terrestrial salamanders also require selective habitats which are threatened by ongoing development and climate change.
The more common and also terrestrial Eastern Red-backed Salamanders were maybe easiler to spot and found in even larger numbers this evening than the Cow Knob Salamanders.
Many thanks to Billy for his fearless leadership and expertise; Malcolm for organizing the trip; the daring drivers who navigated the dark and foggy, narrow, winding road up Reddish; and to all the other participants for making it a rewarding and fun night out!
– Malcolm Cameron, Cohort III, October 2018
Photos at top and bottom are of Cow Knob Salamanders taken by HMN Merrilee Lianez’s son Eli Lianez.