Wouldn’t it be great if every little-known or underappreciated species could have its own fifteen minutes of fame? In the last year, axolotls— endangered salamanders native to Mexico— have had their time in the spotlight, and it’s no doubt done wonders to focus attention on protecting and conserving them. But did you know that we have our own very cool, very special salamanders right here in Tennessee and that they also need protection?
Tennessee cave salamanders are superficially similar to axolotls because, like axolotls, they are a neotenic species— reaching sexual maturity while still in the larval stage. While most of the world’s salamanders undergo metamorphosis and and leave the water at some point, Tennessee cave salamanders are among the many species that become adults while they’re still tadpoles. Only two wild Tennessee cave salamanders have ever been found naturally in their full “adult” form.
Tennessee cave salamanders live only in caves on the Cumberland Plateau, with almost all of their natural habitats within Tennessee state lines and a few small caves in Alabama and Georgia. While Tennessee cave salamanders exclusively live in underground streams, their close relative the spring salamander can often be seen above-ground and on land in forests throughout the Eastern United States.
Like axolotls, Tennessee cave salamanders are extremely sensitive to pollution, which is why they are in trouble. Runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, eroding soil, sewage, and garbage eventually makes its way into the underground streams where Tennessee cave salamanders spend their lives. The choices we make in our daily lives, when we litter or use pesticides, can impact the survival of these delicate creatures who share our planet.
Please help us spread the word about some of the lesser-known native species who need our love and protection! Maybe one day, Tennessee cave salamanders will be in Minecraft, too.
Thank you to Matthew Niemiller for the photo!