On the evening of Saturday, October 15th, a group of about 12 master naturalists and friends
met in Harrisonburg to carpool up to Shenandoah Mountain in search of salamanders and
possibly other amphibians. Billy Flint, a James Madison University herpetologist who has devoted his life to studying salamanders and preserving their habitats, led us along the trail following the ridge south,
looking for salamanders that might be out foraging or simply hiding under rocks or logs. Weather
conditions were excellent for the comfort of participants, but the dry air was not so enticing to
the salamanders. Billy had warned us that he had been out recently and seen not a single
salamander. Although numbers were not large, he did manage to spot a Cow Knob Salamander
as well as a rather lethargic Four-toed Salamander. Our search for a Shenandoah Salamander
Cow Knob Salamanders (Plethodon punctatus) are currently listed as threatened. These terrestrial amphibians are of medium size, dark and spotted . They have a very narrow range of altitudes at which they can live, generally above 2500 feet, and have been found only in a few counties in Virginia and West Virginia along Shenandoah Mountain. They emerge from their hiding places under rocks and logs at night to hunt all manner of ground-dwelling arthropods. It was the habitat of this particular salamander that forced a rerouting of the Dominion pipeline, which had originally been projected to go straight through the middle of this fragile ecosystem.
The smaller Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) enjoys a much more extensive range from Southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as Oklahoma. These are not strictly terrestrial: although they mate and lay eggs on land, the larvae make their way to water after hatching.
Even if we had seen no salamanders, the nocturnal hike was delightful in its own right. There is
talk now of having a very different salamander hunting outing in the spring, looking for aquatic
We were all very grateful to Mr. Flint for leading us on a truly unique outing. Thanks also go to
Malcolm Cameron for organizing this unique excursion.
– Zack Perdue, Cohort VII, October 2022