Tennessee: Salamander Capital of the World

We’re proud to live in such a beautiful, remarkable area teeming with life! Tennessee is home to more salamander species than any other part of the world. Over 60 species of salamander—12% of species on Earth!— are native to Tennessee, with most of those living here in the eastern quarter of the state.

The one pictured here is the Tellico salamander, an endangered species unique to the lowlands near For Fox Sake. Like most salamanders, these critters are at risk due to habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. There is also a risk that fatal diseases could wipe out Tennessee’s entire salamander population if they’re introduced to our environment through illegally imported and released pets.

Please help protect our beautiful native animals.


Bobcats: Powerful Predators

Bobcats in our area are only slightly larger than house cats, but they possess powerful jaws. Despite being only slightly larger than a house cat, a bobcat has a bite stronger than that of a fox, coyote, lynx, dog, cheetah, or snow leopard. Its total bite strength in Newtons actually surpasses that of some of the largest predators on earth!

Rabbits and hares comprise the majority of a bobcat’s diet, but when smaller prey is hard to come by, some bobcats will adapt by killing fawns and occasionally adult deer. One radio-collared male bobcat in Florida was noted to hunt adult bucks over ten times his own size!

There’s no reason for concern, though: we’re not in the menu! Bobcats have never been known to kill humans— even very small ones— and tend to stay far away from us whenever possible.

Bobkitten or Regular Kitten?

Take a look at this kitten. This is a 100% domestic cat… not a bobcat, and not a hybrid!

A fully domestic house cat!

We were disappointed in some of the responses to Arwen the bobcat, who was brought to us by a well-meaning woman who had mistaken her for a domestic kitten. Several people called her names like “stupid” and “idiot” for the honest mistake. One person even called her a narcissist, like she had done this on purpose. Rude! It was an accident by someone trying to save a kitten’s life, not an act of cruelty!

Arwen, a bobkitten who was mistaken for a house cat.

The fact is that cases of mistaken identity happen with some frequency, because many domestic kittens DO look like bobcats, and because many young bobkittens can look nearly indistinguishable from house cats.

Knowing how to save kittens— and how to save wildlife— is important so these accidents don’t continue happening. So how can you tell what’s what?

One of the best identifiers for a true bobcat is its tail, which usually contains three vertebrae. (You don’t have to count them, but it’s a little longer than a “stumpy” bobtail housecat and a lot shorter than a typical cat.)

A bobcat’s tail will have a black tip on the outward-facing side, but will be solid white on the underside.

Bobcat kittens are usually much larger for their age than house cat kittens, though this can get murky in our area, where bobcats are fairly small.

Actual bobcat kittens always have spots. These may be faint freckle-like spots, leopard-like rosettes, or bold polka dots, but they will always be present in some form. Spots on house cats are rare.

Young bobcats do NOT always have tufted ears, so do not depend on this as an identifier.

Still not sure what you’ve got? Please call a wildlife rehabilitator promptly. It’s important to identify the animal in your care quickly so it can either be reunited with its mother or brought to an appropriate rescue.

There’s a plus side to the existence of bobcat lookalike house cats! If you’re a fan of the idea of having a bobcat as a pet, you can check your local shelter and likely find a house cat who’s exactly what you want! Rescuing a lookalike is much kinder, cheaper, and more ethical than trying to raise a bobcat as a pet.

The Tennessee Cave Salamander

If we asked you to think of an endangered animal, you’d likely picture something huge and beautiful and majestic. You may even think of an animal that is no longer endangered, like the giant panda or bald eagle. But you probably don’t think of the small, modest endangered animals that live right here in our own city.

Large, pretty animals— called “charismatic megafauna” in ecology circles— tend to be the icons of wildlife conservation. They attract visitors to zoos and parks and spark marches and movies. And while charismatic megafauna matter, they sometimes cause us to ignore the plights of the animals we’re most capable of helping.

The Tennessee cave salamander lives naturally in cave systems right here in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. It’s in grave danger of extinction because of pollution and development of the streams and wetlands that drain into the caves where it lives. Fertilizers, industrial waste, pesticides, dams, and logging are all destroying the Tennessee cave salamander’s fragile habitat. Without urgent action, this little animal is likely to become extinct within our lifetimes.

So what can you to do help? Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to care. Speed the word about Tennessee cave salamanders and push for more public understanding of all endangered animals, not just the ones who are noteworthy for being large and exotic and beautiful.

Be mindful of your own ecological impact, here in the Tennessee cave salmanader’s native range. Don’t waste water. Don’t overuse lawn chemicals. Don’t litter or dump oil or antifreeze. Support local conservation groups, like the Chattanooga Audubon Society and Tennessee Aquarium. Together, we can help protect our own native treasures.

Chipmunks are Harmless: Don’t Hurt Them!

Pest control companies seeking your business may be quick to exaggerate— or even totally fabricate— the damage that chipmunks can cause. Please don’t be in a rush to harm these little guys!

Eastern chipmunk burrows have tiny entrances only about the size of a quarter, so unless your lawn is so neat and tidy that it could pass for AstroTurf, these holes aren’t likely to even be noticeable. Chipmunks do not chew wood or cause damage to trees or homes, although they may occasionally nibble the berries or flowers off ornamental plants.

Although any mammal can carry fleas and ticks (and the diseases they transmit) chipmunks themselves aren’t considered to be at a high risk for any disease affecting cats, dogs, or humans, so there’s no need to eliminate your resident chippies for anyone’s safety.

Please let your chipmunk neighbors stay in their home! But, if you absolutely must evict a chipmunk family, please seek humane ways to repel and exclude them rather than rushing to the exterminator.

Vultures and the Zombie Apocalypse

A group of vultures— called a “wake”— can consume an entire 150-pound corpse in just a few hours! Of course, those corpses are generally deer, but if you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic scenario surrounded by zombies, your vulture neighbors would come in handy.

These amazing birds are quickly attracted to the smell of decay and will descend on anything dead (or, presumably, undead). Their cast-iron stomachs are full of powerful, acidic compounds that disinfect whatever they eat. A vulture’s belly can kill salmonella, E. coli, anthrax, and presumably whatever zombifying plague is going around.

Maybe we’re not likely to need them as zombie destroyers, but these animals are important to our world. Vultures keep our entire planet cleaner and healthier for everyone.

Remembering Tennessee’s Bison

When you think of bison, you likely picture giant herds in open prairies in the West. But did you know they bison were once an important part of the landscape of Tennessee, as well?

Bison roamed throughout the state, in herds numbering in the thousands, following the same migratory patterns for centuries. The paths they took were so well-traveled that they shaped the landscape. Many of these became roads, which eventually became state highways. The areas where the herds wallowed formed diverse homes for amphibians and waterfowl and provided drinking water for other migrating animals. Bison also helped sustain Tennessee’s then-thriving populations of red wolves, black bears, and pumas.

Unfortunately, hunters in the late 1700s had no interest in keeping this keystone species alive. They would gather at Bledsoe’s Lick, a natural salt lick in Middle Tennessee, and mercilessly kill bison by the hundreds. Bledsoe’s Lick was home to mountains of bleached bison skulls by the 1790s, and Tennessee’s bison were completely gone soon after.

Although bison have been reintroduced to a few enclosed habitats in Tennessee, our state’s free-roaming bison can never return. The habitats and ecosystems they depended— and created— upon simply don’t exist anymore, and the paths of their migrations and feeding and breeding grounds are now blocked or developed.

Let’s learn our lesson from our past mistakes. While we can’t use Bison Day as a way to bring them back to a state that can no longer sustain them, we can use the bison’s tragic end as a reminder to preserve and protect the native wildlife we haven’t lost yet.

Will armadillos give me leprosy?

Don’t hurt me over leprosy fears!
Armadillos are stigmatized out of fear that they may spread leprosy.

The nine-banded armadillo is one of many unfairly stigmatized animals living here in Tennessee. It’s hard to avoid worrisome news headlines about armadillos carrying leprosy, a painful, disfiguring disease that we humans have feared for millennia.

It’s true that some nine-banded armadillos do carry the bacterium that causes leprosy. They first caught it about 500 years ago from human beings, which is actually very surprising.

Leprosy is a fragile disease that can only live in a very narrow temperature range, so it doesn’t easily jump between species. Most other animals have bodies too hot or too cold for leprosy, but armadillos, like humans, are in the “Goldilocks” range for this delicate germ.

Leprosy’s fragile nature means you don’t have much (if any) reason to fear that the armadillos living under your shed will make you sick. The bacteria causing the disease can’t survive long in the soil or air, so you can’t catch the condition without closer contact with the critters.

The best way to keep yourself and your family safe is to give armadillos some space and respect. Don’t hunt, skin, eat, play with, or move these animals! If you find one that needs help, contact a rehabilitator who can handle it safely.

What kind of wild puppy did I find?

If you’re lucky, you may spot a wild “puppy” of some kind in the wild one day. I’m the first few weeks of life, wild coyote pups, fox kits, and raccoon kits can look very similar and sometimes lack the very distinct traits that make adults fairly easy to tell apart. All four of these species start life as one uniformly grey to brown color.

If you’ve found some “puppies” who are unattended, the most important thing to do is leave them alone unless they’re clearly hurt, in distress, or starving. But if you need to identify them— for example, to try to “match” them to a mother animal who is confirmed dead— here are some ways you can tell what kind of wild puppy you have.

Red foxes are distinguishable from other wild kits and pups because they always have a white-tipped tail. Their distinct white-tipped tails are identifiable from birth and occur in all color morphs of red fox. Red foxes also have fine kitten-like claws and narrow snouts.

Grey fox kits look very similar to red for kits in their first month of life, having a similarly uniform color. They also have very fine claws and narrow snouts. The tip of a grey fox kit’s tail, however, is always black rather than white.

Raccoon kits who are less than a week old don’t look much like raccoons. They can look very similar to newborn pups and newborn foxes. Some people have even mistaken them for squirrels! The clearest way to identify a baby raccoon is by its hands. While fox and coyote pups have dog-like paws, a raccoon has hands that look almost human.

Coyote pups look the most like the puppies of domestic dogs. They’re considerably larger than fox kits and have a broader snout and a broader nose. Coyote pups’ feet are also larger and their claws are also thicker.

If the mystery pup you’ve found needs help, please contact a rehabilitator promptly. These animals all need expert care to have the best chance of being successfully released in the wild.

What’s most likely to have rabies in East TN?

Bats, skunks, raccoons, cats, foxes, dogs, and cattle are the most likely animals to have rabies in East Tennessee.
Bats, skunks, raccoons, cats, foxes, dogs, and cattle are the most likely animals to have rabies in East Tennessee.

Any warm-blooded animal can get rabies. Even rabbits and dolphins are at risk. In a few extraordinarily strange cases, it’s been recorded in birds! But there are some animals that are statistically at a higher risk than others.

This can vary quite a bit by region. In our area, bats, skunks, and raccoons together comprise nearly 100% of confirmed rabies cases, with a few cases in cats, foxes, dogs, and cattle trailing statistically behind.

It’s worth noting that some animals have an undeserved reputation when it comes to rabies. Despite public concerns and fears, there is very little risk of contracting rabies from a coyote, bobcat, opossum, or groundhog in East Tennessee.

If you’ve been bitten by an unvaccinated mammal— even those in the highest risk categories— your risk of being exposed to rabies is fairly low anywhere in the United States. But, since rabies is so serious and deadly, it’s important to follow up with your doctor and local health department to protect yourself.