The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Zigging and zagging to find the Zigzag

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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.

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