The great salamander adventure

Twelve of the world’s foremost salamander authorities converged on Balsam Mountain Preserve Sunday March 11 for an informal survey. The program was facilitated by Balsam Mountain Preserve’s senior naturalist Blair Ogburn, who seemed right at home with her most distinguished colleagues.


Ogburn began with a brief overview, including a look at some of the creatures the group would be observing in the wild. She encouraged comments from her guests regarding their expertise and their anticipations and/or expectations.

“Well, uh, one time me and my daddy turned over a rock and there was a salamander under it and it wiggled and wiggled,” responded one of the participants.

And as you might expect with such a cosmopolitan, sophisticated group of scientists, once the anecdotes start flying the sky’s the limit. And it’s hard to get such a well-traveled group together without the subject of food coming up.

“I know a man that turned a log over once and there was a snake under it. He had a gun and he shot it – then he ate it,” commented one of the researchers.

Ogburn, who has loads of experience facilitating such outings, knows the precociousness of such elite researchers and that their child-like exuberance often needs focus. She thanked the group for their comments and pointed out that it was time to move on to the survey itself.

I was extremely impressed at the thoroughness and lack of pretense exhibited by the group. Some even began turning stones on the short hike up to the stream. And once there, the group threw themselves whole-heartedly into the survey, apparently oblivious to the cold water and mud.

Their thoroughness and keen searching abilities began to pay off immediately. One group was able to capture a mother crawfish (I know, I know, but I’m from Louisiana — I can’t say crayfish) with newly hatched babes still tucked under her tail for safety. Caddisflies, water striders and other aquatic insects were also caught. But the main focus of the expedition was salamanders, and our experts did not fail us.

In a short time of searching, at least six, maybe seven species of salamanders were discovered. They ranged from tiny — a juvenile red-backed about an inch-and-a half long to one very robust five to six inch long black-bellied salamander, described in scientific terms by one of the participants as a “whopper.” Some of the other species included slimy, seal and a couple of the different dusky salamanders.

The group, under Ogburn’s supervision and demonstrating the utmost conservation ethics, secured the salamanders and other aquatic animals in clear plastic jars with stream water for viewing. After a brief show-and-tell, researchers returned the creatures to the site of their capture.

This kind of scientific adventure bodes well for our dwindling wild spaces. The pure joy and enthusiasm experienced by the participants permeates their whole being and puts them in touch with that place in themselves that longs for nature and the natural world and makes the protection and enhancement of such places second nature.

While there is no doubting the sincerity of this august group of researchers, don’t expect any peer-reviewed articles for the next 12 to 20 years as the group’s age ranged from 5 to 9.

If you are the parent of one of your own “world’s foremost authorities” and would like to participate in one of Balsam Mountain’s programs contact Ogburn at 828.631.1061 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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