Tennessee Cave Salamanders

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!


Variations in Striped Skunks

Two striped skunks patients, one nearly all white and one nearly all black.

“What kind of skunk is this? Isn’t this one different?”

“Isn’t it supposed to have more black?”

“Is it going to get more white when it gets older?”

We see these questions a lot about our striped skunk patients! Skunks have highly variable markings, and we routinely see patients who are nearly all-black or nearly all-white. These are all normal variations and not a sign of a medical problem.

The majority of wild skunks have classical markings that are predominantly black with a stripe on the snout and a spot on the head that splits on each side to create a V-shaped white mark, which extends to down the back and into the tail. These markings direct potential predators’ eyes to the skunk’s rear end, as a warning of where it carries its chemical weapon.

About 5% of striped skunks in East Tennessee have “star” markings, without the “V” shape, and with only. White mark on the head. Some “shooting star” skunks have very small, thin trails that lead down the shoulders but not the rest of the back.

While exotic color variations like chocolate, champagne, lilac, and blue occur often in captivity, they are very rare to nonexistent in the wild. Unusual colors usually result from inbreeding and make skunks less recognizable to predators, so they are more likely to be targeted as prey.

We love all of our skunk patients and enjoy seeing the diversity of the animal world. Despite the differences between individuals, all of the skunks we have received are normal variations of one species, the striped skunk.

Amazing Newborn Opossum Development

Believe it or not, this isn’t a human embryo. Or a dog embryo. Or a giraffe embryo. It’s not an embryo at all, but a newborn animal already out of the womb and in the world! This is a real photo of an opossum joey, taken moments after birth.

At a glance, newborn opossums look almost indistinguishable from the young of placental mammals early in gestation. If you put this photo side-by-side with pictures of rats, cats, and humans in the first 12 days after conception, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But, while we depend on nutrition and oxygen from the placenta for many months, an opossum joey needs none of that! They go right from being jellybean-sized embryos to being born, skipping the fetal stage entirely!

Despite being so tiny and squishy and formless, opossums are born with claws that enable them to grasp the mother’s hair and skin, and a strong sense of gravity that tells them to start the journey up from her pseudo vaginal canal toward her nipples. From there, they instinctively find a teat and swallow it. Opossum joeys stay attached to their mothers’ nipples for several weeks and then start to emerge from the pouch.

It’s incredible to share a planet with animals who are so much like us, and yet so different! We start the beginning of life looking nearly identical, but the way we grow and develop is dramatically different. How amazing is that?

Smiling Opossums: Scared, Not Happy

You know all those adorable memes, showing opossums “smiling” while being handled? It’s common for people who find orphaned or injured opossums to project that the animal knows it’s being helped or is happy to be cuddled and pet. Some unethical exhibitors will even distribute photos of smiling opossums as evidence that they love to be passed around and played with by strangers. Yikes. 😞

It’s very important to remember that animals don’t show feelings the same way we do. That’s especially true for opossums, whose jaw shape lends toward the appearance of a “smile,” and who will hold their mouths open when experiencing extreme fear. While it may look cute to you, the opossum’s smile is an attempt to show its teeth and look scary. One of the worst things to do with a “smiling” opossum is to play with it.

Humans are apex predators and opossums are relatively weak, relatively defenseless prey animals. They don’t think of us as friends or helpers. Even tame opossums may experience fear and anxiety while being handled and may express it by “smiling.”

This little cutie was a patient with our friends at Out of the Woods Wildlife Rescue, which of course correctly understood that she was scared and needed space. If you find an animal in need of assistance, please don’t handle it any more than is absolutely necessary to bring it to a rehabilitator.

Don’t Leave Medicine for Sick Wildlife

Have you ever heard of a doctor treating disease this way? When a doctor is in the mall and sees somebody coughing and sneezing, they don’t come back and leave a bowl of candy laced with Tamiflu.

That would be a bad idea for a number of reasons. The doctor can’t make a diagnosis from a glance, doesn’t know the person’s weight, doesn’t know if they might be allergic to an ingredient, and doesn’t even know if they’ll be back in that shopping mall any time soon. Medicated candy could easily go to the wrong person, including a small child who would be poisoned by an adult dose.

The same is true for wildlife. It’s dangerous to put medicated food outdoors and simply hope for the best. An animal that is sick enough to need treatment is sick enough that it needs to be captured and brought to a wildlife rehabilitator. There, it can deceive a correct diagnosis, an individualized treatment plan, and all the supportive care and monitoring it might need.

If you have spotted a sick animal, the kindest thing that you can do is to set a cage-style humane trap and bring the animal to your local wildlife rehabilitators. Please don’t try to medicate a wild animal yourself.

Don’t Hatch an Egg Found on the Ground!

This is one of the more common and frustrating calls we receive: “I found an egg and I’m going to hatch it!”

This usually happens when someone finds an egg on the ground and determines— often incorrectly— that it fell or blew out of a nest. Taking an egg out of nature and trying to raise it as a DIY project is never acceptable.

Many native wild birds naturally on the ground, including plovers, turkeys, geese, quail, grouse, terns, juncos, meadowlarks, sandpipers, and hermit thrushes. When a well-meaning person finds their eggs on the ground and kidnaps them, the parents will lose the unborn baby they have worked so hard to prepare for, and they may not be able to try again until next year.

Occasionally, you might actually find an egg on the ground that doesn’t belong there, but it’s almost never safe to make an assumption. Eggs are very hard to distinguish by appearance and it’s far too easy to make a mistake. A tree-nesting bird’s egg that has actually made its way to the ground is also probably no longer viable. The parents may have rejected it intentionally because the egg wasn’t fertilized, but if it fell out by accident, the embryo inside would almost certainly die in the process.

In the very unlikely event that an egg on the ground actually is viable and actually shouldn’t be on the ground, DIY hatching still isn’t an option. It is illegal to possess the eggs of any native bird, and the process of correctly incubating a wild bird’s egg is very delicate and easy to mess up. Even with the best incubators and equipment, a developing egg can easily be killed.

Should you decide to commit a crime and keep the egg, and should the egg you’re trying to incubate actually hatch, what then? A newly hatched songbird needs to be fed every fifteen minutes from the moment the sun rises until the moment it sets. Will you be available to provide this care? Do you have access to the thousands of live insects you will need to feed the bird, and do you have training to feed it safely? Do you have all the appropriate caging, from an artificial nest in an incubator to a long-term, fully furnished outdoor aviary? Do you have access to a veterinarian who would provide emergency care for a bird that is illegally in your possession? Unfortunately, caring for a baby bird is far, far more challenging than many people assume, so it is easy to get in far over your head.

We don’t say all of this to make anyone feel ashamed of their desire to help an egg found on the ground. It’s wonderful to care and to have a childlike wonder at the beauty of the world around us. However, it’s important to be aware of how unrealistic and harmful it is to take birds’ eggs from the wild.

If you found an egg on the ground, the only kind and correct thing to do is leave it alone.

Don’t Rescue Native Prey from Native Predators

We were on the fence about sharing this story, because we know there are people who will be offended and upset by our advice to sometimes let nature be nature. But we feel we have an obligation to advocate for wildlife even when our advice is upsetting or unpopular. So here’s a true story that happened last week: the “other side” of the story.

Once upon a time, in Hamilton County, Tennessee, there was a hard-working crow family with babies to feed. Crows are very social, sensitive, and intelligent, and are fiercely dedicated to their mates and young. A daddy crow was working very hard to feed his fast-growing family, and he was doing a fine job. He was exhausted and he was barely able to keep himself fed, but his mate and his babies were thriving. He loved them, and he was proud of them.

Crows grow very quickly in their first few weeks of life, and their need for lots of food means that parents must work very, very hard in order for them to survive. As omnivores, crows need to feed their young meat in addition to fruits and seeds in order to survive. Without it, the babies will pass away from anemia, failure to thrive, or simply starvation. So, of course, being a good parent, Daddy Crow was on the lookout for meat.

Daddy Crow found some newborn mammals. Perfect! They’re nutrient-rich and soft, perfect for helping his little ones grow. Excited with his find, he called his mate to help split up the bounty and bring it home.

While they was at work preparing a meal for their children, a human saw what he was doing and decided that the crow parents were evil and chased them away. After spending the whole day (and precious energy) desperately looking for food, the parents now had nothing to feed their little ones, or themselves.

Their dinner was brought to For Fox Sake. He was a tiny raccoon less than two days old and he could not be saved. He had internal injuries, as evidenced by blood coming out of his ears, nose, mouth, and rectum. While his finder thought they were doing the right thing, the truth is that no one was rescued. Instead, multiple animals were victimized— the crows and their young, who lost their hard-earned meal, and the raccoon himself, whose suffering was greatly prolonged by a well-intended effort to save him.

Wildlife rehabilitators are not gods of the forest, here to pass moral judgments on animals and punish the ones whose diets or language or appearance don’t meet our personal standards. We’re here to save wild animals when it’s both necessary and compassionate to do so. In the event of a natural predator who is in the middle of eating its natural prey, intervention isn’t appropriate.

While we always want to help native wild animals who are hurt by human causes or domestic animals— or who are suffering in a way that offers no benefit to other animals or the greater ecosystem— we ask our supporters across the world to be compassionate to animals in every position on the food chain and to remember that even the less glamorous animals in the natural world have a role to play. Out of sympathy for both predator and prey, please don’t try to stop native predators from eating.

Montana’s Government Intentionally Spread Mange in Wildlife

Whenever a coyote or fox is admitted to For Fox Sake, the very first thing we do is treat them for sarcoptic mange. The few who come to us without symptoms invariably have the mites in their skin and, without treatment, will develop symptoms within a few days. No matter what part of the state they come from, wild members of the dog family are infested.

And it’s not their fault. It’s ours.

While canine sarcoptic mites— the tiny bugs that cause mange in dogs and their wild cousins— would have occasionally spread to wildlife without human intervention, the epidemic of mange in North American wildlife can be pretty solidly traced back to Montana in the early 1900s.

In those days, wild animals were not valued for their role in the ecosystem, or for their beauty, or for their inherent right to freedom and dignity. All land was viewed as potential profit and all wildlife was viewed as an inconvenience. The state of Montana decided to hire a veterinarian to capture families of wolves and coyotes, intentionally infect them with mange, and release them so they could return to their dens and spread the disease throughout the wild. This occurred annually from 1905 until 1916. Before that time, sarcoptic mange had never been recorded in North American wildlife.

Untreated, mange can be fatal, and it’s a terrible way to go. Animals with it become dehydrated and develop open sores, which become infected. When they lose their fur, they expend more energy while struggling to regulate their body temperatures, and they can starve. Some “lucky” animals simply freeze to death.

Sarcoptic mites are extremely contagious, especially among social animals. To say that it spread like wildfire would be an understatement. As climate change, urbanization, and secondary rodenticide exposure have left wild animals even more susceptible to mange, it’s rare to find a fox, wolf, or coyote who is completely unaffected by it, and the mites are quickly adapting to more easily infect other animals, such as bears.

We often get asked, in wildlife rehabilitation, why we don’t let nature take its course. The truth is that we often do. We don’t take natural prey away from natural predators and we don’t take small, weak, or old animals out of the wild simply because we think captivity is better. But, in many cases, humans are to blame for the problems facing our native wildlife, and we believe that means we have a responsibility to help.

You can help to prevent the spread of mange in wildlife by never feeding wild animals (especially predators), by never relocating wildlife, and by working with your local wildlife rehabilitators to trap and treat animals with mange symptoms in your area. While it’s far too late to fully undo the damage unleashed over a century ago, it’s never too late to be kind and compassionate to wildlife.

Use AHnow, Not 911, for Wildlife Emergencies

We know that wildlife emergencies can be scary, and we all learned as children that the best thing to do in an emergency is to call 911! But unfortunately, calling 911 for an orphaned or injured wild animal is not helpful. It could delay assistance for the animal, tie up resources needed for human emergencies, and possibly even lead to consequences such as fines.

911 dispatchers are not generally trained on veterinary first aid and don’t usually have a list of licensed rehabilitators handy. They may unintentionally give incorrect advice and it may take them extra time while they track down a list of rehabilitators (something you could do yourself in less time). 911 is for emergencies that impact human health and safety, like serious human injuries, violent crime, fires, and car accidents.

There are a few rare exceptions that warrant contacting 911 for a wildlife emergency, such as when an animal is posing an immediate public safety hazard. Examples of this might include a wild animal that is actively attacking a person or an injured bear or adult deer blocking a high-speed highway.

If you’ve found an orphaned or injured wild animal in need of assistance anywhere in North America, please check AHnow.org for help. This is a continent-wide directory that can connect you with licensed rehabilitators local to you, who accept the species you have found.

Tree Service? Watch for Baby Animals

During “baby season,” animals of all species are orphaned or killed due to tree work. 😞 Dead and dying trees, in particular, often have hollows that make them ideal habitats for animals ranging from flying squirrels to bluebirds. When the trees are trimmed or, worse, cut down entirely, it can kill an entire family.

It’s best to wait until fall to have tree work done, if at all possible. However, if a tree (or part of a tree) is posing a safety hazard, we understand that sometimes it’s necessary to address it during spring or summer.

Before work begins, be absolutely certain that your tree trimmer has checked for nests, eggs, and live animals. If an active nest of any kind is discovered, please work with the tree trimmer to safely remove and re-nest the family before work begins. If the worker finds a nest belonging to any species of bird, it’s important to contact a federally permitted rehabilitator for assistance, since re-nesting birds can be especially challenging.

While we’re happy to care for baby animals who are truly orphaned or abandoned, it is always in an animal’s best interest to stay with its natural parents whenever possible. Please try to avoid taking baby animals away from their homes whenever possible.

Tree service is sometimes necessary, even at times that it might be harmful to animals, but it’s important to make sure we all do everything in our power to minimize the impact we have on our wild neighbors.