From soil to sky: Will the misty microclimates of the Smokies prevail in a warming world?

Foundational ecology moves from before times to nowadays in the Smokies

GATLINBURG — In the Middle Ages, salamanders were thought to come from fire. A log set on the hearth would send them scurrying out of the rotten wood, startling those who had gathered around for warmth. We now know that salamanders, of course, come from water — even the European fire salamander with its flame-like yellow markings.

Over the last 20 years of getting my boots soggy in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I know these creatures to thrive in the clean, shallow streams and trickles of this temperate rainforest, where annual precipitation is higher than anywhere in the U.S. save for the Pacific Northwest.

One way to become acquainted with the park is through the water that veins through the hills and is transmuted into vapor that floats on the air in misty silence. After a rain, you can slake your thirst from the pools formed in the creases of broad rhododendron leaves. Sit by a shallow, fishless stream for long enough and you might spot the quick movement of a salamander tail, maybe a flash of orange or brown, or notice a tiny black amphibian face peeking out from behind a smooth stone in the creek.

During the last ice age, the ancestors of today’s salamanders found refuge from glaciers in what is now the southern Appalachian Mountains. These are among Earth’s oldest ranges dating back to the Precambrian era — that first geologic time period when vertebrates were a mere glimmer on the evolutionary horizon. Of the 760 living salamander species, about one-third live in North America. Southern Appalachia is the global epicenter of salamander biogenetic diversity, often touted as the salamander capital of the world. The region is home to 78 species; 31 of them, including a new subspecies, recently discovered, live in the national park. 

In March 2020, as Covid was on the approach, I literally bumped elbows with Jordan Stark — a greeting in lieu of shaking hands. She was staying in a mountain research cabin across from where two friends and I were holed up in a writing retreat, periodically disrupting our writerly zone of non-distraction to check for “viral” news. So when I arranged to meet Stark more than a year later to report on a story about climate change on a muggy July day, it seemed almost too perfect an example of trail magic to recognize her from that weekend in “the before times.” 

As wildfire smoke blew in yellowing skies from forests on fire to the west, we set out on a journey, not in search of salamanders, but rather for the last eight of the soil moisture sensors she had painstakingly tucked under leaf litter in different habitats in the park. This was for her graduate research at Syracuse University, where she studied under Professor Jason Fridley, who has been conducting ecology studies in the Smokies for over 15 years. (Fridley has since moved to Clemson University, where he is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.)

Soil moisture data might sound dry, but salamander biologists are among those most interested in it. Changes to the microclimate will not affect all the plant and animal species the same way and, as bioindicators, salamanders are uniquely sensitive to disruptions in the ecosystem and are of unique interest to science. First, there’s the oft-cited fact that they can regenerate their tails and limbs. Also, some adult salamanders are lungless, breathing entirely through their delicate skin, yet research has not been able to explain how their skin can co-exist with deadly fungi and other microorganisms in the forest.

Stark and I hiked up a mountain during the most humid month of the year, talking about her research with Professor Fridley until we were short of breath and shiny with sweat. As a hiker and resident of the foothills of the Smokies, I was seeking to understand how climate change will impact the biodiversity here, as well as the humans like my friends and neighbors who depend on one of the 45 watersheds that make up the park.

Read the full article at Hellbender Press.

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