The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Zigging and zagging to find the Zigzag

Written by

Zigzag salamander UT doctoral student Bryce Wade examines a Southern zigzag salamander he found at Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville. Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

On the happy herping trail: Bryce Wade searches for salamanders

KNOXVILLE Bryce Wade scours the nature trail, turning over rocks and logs. On this overcast day at Ijams Nature Center, he searches beneath the leaves on the ground for one creature: salamanders.

Underneath the rocks, logs and leaves, salamanders populate the cool, moist earth, avoiding the sun whenever they can. Wade is looking for a particular type: a winter species informally called the Southern zigzag salamander (Plethodon ventralis). 

At birth, the zigzag skips the tadpole-like larval stage and hatches with the appearance of a tiny adult salamander. It gathers underneath large objects to stay moist and hide from owls and other predators. The zigzag salamander comes out primarily after it rains, as it absorbs moisture and oxygen through its skin since it lacks lungs.

Failing to find one, Wade turns the logs back over and continues down the trail. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Wade is a conservation biologist with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. But his specific field is a little more niche. He focuses on herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

“I just grew up loving animals in general,” Wade says. “I didn’t really know anything about salamanders until I had already started researching them, because there’s a lab at UT, the Fitzpatrick Lab, that focuses mainly on salamanders and (assistant professor and herpetologist) Todd Pierson, who got me involved with research, focused on salamanders.

“So, I went with that because I thought they were interesting, and now it’s developed into an obsession,” Wade says. “They’re definitely my favorite animals. I just think they’re the coolest things ever.”

He met his wife, Anna, at UT while she studied neuroscience, and she occasionally joins him in his search for salamanders.

“She might not go out in the woods with me on a five-mile hike to find a salamander, but she enjoys seeing them. She thinks they’re cute,” Wade says. “As long as I don’t take her when I find the snakes, she’s okay with it.”

Even in his free time, Wade looks for salamanders for fun. He says that this is known as “herping,” a term he’s not the biggest fan of.

He continues farther down the herping trail. Wade stops to examine the underside of more rocks and logs. Despite the damp ground, no salamanders appear, even though it’s the perfect environmental condition for the small amphibians.

He’s looking in the right place, though. Knoxville and East Tennessee are prime locations to find salamanders.

“The Southeastern United States is really the salamander capital of the world, in terms of most diversity in such a constrained area,” Wade says. “Thirty species alone in the Smoky Mountains, and then the whole Southeast, Tennessee to Florida maybe … 80 or 90 (species), a lot of salamanders.
“There’s only 500 (species) worldwide, so if 20 percent of that is in the Southeast, that’s pretty incredible,” Wade says.

The Southern zigzag is common to the area, with several populations in Knoxville, including one at Second Creek near UT. It can also be found in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Its sibling species, the Northern zigzag, reaching towards Indiana.

After he crosses a creek and goes up a hill, Wade finds orange plastic flags tied to trees and branches. These markers signify that Wade has done previous research in this location.

During his undergraduate studies, Wade conducted research on the Southern zigzag salamander with the goal of recording its population and any environmental variables that might affect populations in areas around Knoxville.

Over the course of four to five months, Wade checked 55 marked areas three times, including six in the Ijams Nature Center. He found that about 22 of the designated areas contained a salamander population, and the presence of limestone increased the likelihood of a population.  He found that plants like English ivy and winter creeper, however, negatively affect the salamander population.

“I’ve actually sent this information to Ijams,” Wade says. “It’s just another reason to back up why it’s important to remove invasive plants. Invasive plants have negative impacts on wildlife that you might not immediately see. Things that are harder to see, like the abundance or occupancy of a small salamander that many people overlook. So, this research can really inform conservation in that way.”

Although this specific area in Ijams contained salamanders before, Wade has yet to find any during this search. Slightly disappointed, Wade removes the flags and trudges forward, continuing to look under logs as he treks through the forest looking for the now elusive Southern zigzag populations that have previously been found in these areas.

His research, which was recently published in Herpetological Review, isn’t far off from the work he did at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As a natural resource technician, Wade worked for a year mixing field work with statistical data and reports. He was able to research some of his own biological interests while he was there, which was helped by the large, natural space at his disposal.

“Oak Ridge National Lab — everybody knows it for The Bomb — but it’s also got 33,000 acres of mostly forest,” Wade says. “That’s bigger than any state park in Tennessee, so there’s a lot of land there and a lot of undeveloped land. I think it’s about 85 percent forest or so. There’s a lot of nature there to be protected and it’s a national environmental research park, so there’s more biology and forestry and ecology that goes on there that people don’t really realize.”

He doesn’t hate working at a computer desk, but he prefers working in the woods. It’s where Wade wants to be: among the salamanders.

After nearly an hour of searching, Wade turns over another rock and finally finds it: a Southern zigzag salamander. He carefully picks up the dark brown salamander, which has a faint zigzag pattern on its back, and places it on a leaf. Salamanders are sensitive to the oils on human skin, he says. It won’t kill them, but it will irritate the salamander’s skin, like putting hand sanitizer on a paper cut. Wade says that it’s common to place a salamander inside of a plastic Ziploc bag for safety and transportation.

The salamander doesn’t run or hide when Wade picks it up. It mostly just hangs around unless it is poked and prodded. In this case, the adult zigzag moves around on the leaf, but doesn’t try to scurry away. Wade only found one salamander this day, even though they normally live in larger groups.

After examining it, Wade places the salamander back down next to the rock. This allows the salamander to return to its hiding place without getting squashed. The amphibian disappears into the fallen leaves, returning to its moist home under the rock. It will probably feed soon if it hasn’t already, mostly on small insects, spiders and ants, along with other small invertebrate animals.

After this salamander search, Wade will return to his studies as he wraps up his first semester in graduate school. After completing his Ph.D. program at UT, he hopes to keep working in biology and conservation, especially within this field of reptiles and amphibians that he loves.

“I didn’t come into this field for the money,” Wade says. “It’s not a very lucrative field. But I’m just doing something that’s fun and important.”

On this overcast day in Ijams Nature Center, Bryce Wade found only one zigzag salamander, but any such expedition is a success for him.

Rate this item
(3 votes)
Published in News

Related items

  • Monarch butterflies, an ephemeral but regular glimpse of beauty, are fluttering toward extinction
    in News

     Bales Monarch on coneflowerA monarch butterfly, recently declared endangered despite decades of conservation, is seen atop a coneflower. Stephen Lyn Bales

    Dramatic monarch declines mean the bell tolls for we

    KNOXVILLE Monarch butterflies are ephemeral by nature. The orange and black dalliances that flitter through our lives, our yards, and our countryside like motes of dust are here one minute and gone the next. We pause for a few seconds to watch the “flutter-bys” and then move on.

    For about all of the Lepidopteran family, where they come from, where they go, their raison d'être, we don’t ask. They are winged wisps that pass through our busy lives. But that is not true with this orange and black butterfly, named to honor King William III of England, the Prince of Orange. But two people did ask.

    Norah and Fred Urquhart lived in Southern Canada and in the late 1930s they noticed that the monarch butterflies seemed to all be fluttering south this time of the year. Could they possibly be migrating and if so, where did they go? The notion that a butterfly might migrate south for the winter seemed hard to fathom. Yes, broad-winged hawks migrate. But a flimsy butterfly?

  • ORNL researcher models fire’s growing footprint in a changing climate
    in News

    COVER 1208 GatlinburgsInferno3Wild turkeys forage in charred hardwood forest soon after the 2016 Gatlinburg fires, which moved from the Smokies to developed areas in Sevier County. An ORNL model predicts wildfire threats will increase in the Southern Appalachians because of climate change. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press via Knoxville Mercury

    ORNL report: Local wildfire danger will likely loom larger because of climate change

    OAK RIDGE This cruel summer, the Southern Appalachian region is already baking in above-normal temperatures and basking in poor air quality. 

    Air temperatures in Knoxville flirted with 100 degrees on July 6, which were well above average and prompted the National Weather Service to issue a heat advisory for much of the metropolitan area.

    It’s hard to definitively link a heat wave to global warming, but one oft-cited consequence of climate change is the growing intensity of wildfires, even in the traditionally moisture-rich Appalachians. The range of climate change effects is difficult to pin down, but one constant in the study of climate change is an expected increase in overall temperatures, which can power wildfires via both fuel increases and volatility.

  • UTK has quite the collection of earthly remains

    Editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape 1871

    WBIR: UT got good bones

    KNOXVILLE The University of Tennessee boasts an incredible collection of animal skeletons — from hummingbirds to bison, according to a story from WBIR. It’s among the largest such assemblages in the country. (There are also skeletons at the Body Farm, but that’s a different story).

    The skeletons are part of the UT Anthropology Department’s Vertebrate Osteology Collection.

    “We have over 12,000 vertebrate specimens in our collections. So that’s 12,000 skeletons of individual animals,” Dr. Anneke Janzen, an assistant professor in UT’s Anthropology Department, told WBIR.

    The collection includes skulls and skeletons ranging in size from small bats to bison. It also includes skulls of dolphins, ostriches and alligators.

    “Beyond just being able to identify bones and identify different species based on tiny bone fragments, I think students have a much greater appreciation for, you know, the diversity of animal life out there and much greater appreciation for animals in our backyards as well,” Janzen told WBIR.

    The collection is available for analysis by professional researchers, and parts can be seen by the public during the annual Darwin Day at the university. 

  • Report Card for U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge Operations: Failing grades in stakeholder engagement and environmental decision making

    Editor’s note: As reported in Hellbender Press, the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM) was reprimanded by the Southern Environmental Law Center for neglecting its duty to follow guidelines and proper procedures mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Of immediate concern was OREM’s pretext and information — or specifically lack of pertinent information — released ahead of the public meeting on May 17, 2022 about its project for a new “Environmental Management Disposal Facility” (EMDF).

  • In throwback to early naturalist techniques, Big Camera! helps us picture plants under the sun
    in News

    big cameraDonna Moore and Anna Lawrence are pictured at a Big Camera! event in May at Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville. Ben Pounds/Hellbender PressLessons in early and enduring photo techniques are an organic way to spread the arts and cultivate love of nature

    KNOXVILLE Donna Moore and Anna Lawrence showed people how to take photos with the sun.

    The method, demonstrated this spring at Ijams Nature Center, involved putting one or more leaves on photo paper and spraying it with two sprays. One spray contained lemon and water. The other contained water with vinegar.

    Children then placed these leaves on wet photo paper in the sun. The sun’s light gives a permanent impression of the leaf on the paper.

  • Opponents of Oak Ridge waste dump, citing comms breakdown, urge extension of public comment period
    How and why did things go wrong at the EMWMFImage from a 2018 memorandum authored by experts including former Department of Energy employees in Oak Ridge. EMWMF is the present landfill that has a history of failures and is reaching capacity. Ecologists say, after a decade DOE still is not adequately addressing waste acceptance criteria and feasible alternatives.


    Public can comment in person Tuesday night in Oak Ridge on proposed DOE waste dump

    OAK RIDGE The Southern Environmental Law Center blistered the Department of Energy in a letter ahead of a May 17 hearing on construction of a toxic-waste landfill that opponents said poses contamination threats to portions of the Clinch River watershed and downstream TVA reservoirs.

    The hearing is set for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 17 at the Pollard Technology Conference Center, 210 Badger Ave. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. will be accepted through June 7.

    The Department of Energy wants to bury contaminated debris from demolition of Manhattan Project-era complexes and associated legacy toxins from the Oak Ridge Reservation. The drawn-out debate about how best to safely store the materials now focuses on the transparency of the decision process and the health of the Bear Creek watershed and downstream pollution threats to the Clinch River. 

  • Knoxville kids go beast mode at new natural playscape

    ijams kid playscapeA child defends an elaborate stick fort at Ijams Natural Playscape, which opened this week at the South Knoxville nature center.  Ijams Nature Center

    New Ijams playground reconnects kids with neighborhood woods, forts and creeks of yore

    KNOXVILLE Ijams Nature Center officially opened a portal into pure childhood beast mode this week.

    The Ijams Nature Playscape at Grayson Subaru Preserve is specifically designed for young children to play in a creek, climb hills, dig, build, crawl and engage with nature in an organic, unstructured way. The new space features a large nest, tunnels, log steps and different rooms to play in.

    “For generations, many of us had the opportunity to roam and play in the woods, empty lots and fields that surrounded our homes and neighborhoods,” Ijams Executive Director Amber Parker said. “We remember the freedom we had to use our imagination, test ourselves and become a part of the natural landscape, at least until we were called home for dinner.”

  • Sam Adams raises trees like healthy children at the University of Tennessee
    in News

    IMG 0122University of Tennessee arborist Sam Adams stands in front of a blooming dogwood on the campus of UTK.  Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

    First campus arborist continues climb up Utree Knoxville

    KNOXVILLE Students at the University of Tennessee walk by hundreds of trees every day without thinking about them.

    Sam Adams was thinking about them even before he became UT’s first arborist.

    Adams, 58, has cared for trees in the field of arboriculture for decades. He’s worked privately and publicly, including as arborist supervisor for Sarasota County, Florida. He graduated with a degree in environmental studies at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where he initially pursued a degree in English.

  • Ijams Nature Center honors deep roots with expansion dedication
    in News

    Ijams Girls 1923 Martha Elizabeth Mary JosephineMartha, Elizabeth, Mary, and Josephine Ijams (from left) are seen in this 1923 photo. The girls were active in scouting and became accomplished naturalists early in life. Ijams Nature Center

    Help give thanks across history to founders of the South Knoxville nature center and celebrate the addition of 3 acres

    Cindy Hassil is a writer for Ijams Nature Center.

    KNOXVILLE When H.P. and Alice Ijams purchased 20 acres of land along the Tennessee River in 1910, they couldn’t have known their family would still be contributing to the legacy that would become the 318-acre nonprofit Ijams Nature Center more than a century later. 

    Ijams Nature Center will celebrate the contributions of the Ijams family and dedicate three acres of land recently donated to the nature center by H.P. and Alice’s granddaughter, Martha Kern, at 10 a.m. Thursday, April 28. The public is invited. 

  • Get put together well: Ijams Nature Center hosts sustainable fashion show
    in News

    Brittany Fleurish Vertical 9The Fleurish fashion show will feature sustainable and stylish clothes to reduce your big old footprint on Earth.  Courtesy Fleurish/Ijams Nature Center

    Help rock the catwalk at Ijams’ display of sustainable clothing

    Cindy Hassil is a writer for Ijams Nature Center.

    KNOXVILLE Clothes can be a burden to both bear and wear. Ijams Nature Center offers fashionable alternatives with sustainability cred this month.

    Ijams and Natural Alternatives Salon and Spa will present Fleurish: A Sustainable Fashion Event, from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday, April 24.

    “Fleurish is a runway show focused on how sustainability, conservation and beauty intertwine and affect our lives … and our future,” Fleurish Creative Director Ben Prager said. “This event engages the audience in ways that will help the average consumer make changes in their day-to-day lives to better impact the planet while never losing sight of the beauty of nature and the human experience.”

    Twelve local designers, along with hair stylists and makeup artists, are coming together to create looks using both recycled and natural materials.