Salamander Surprise!

October 23, 2019 -- When TVA Terrestrial Zoologist, Elizabeth Hamrick, and her team crawled down into the opening of a previously hidden cave at Boone Dam, they intended to monitor the health and habitat for federally endangered bats. Because the cave is normally submerged under Boone Lake — only accessible while the waters are lowered for the repairs at Boone dam — Hamrick was afraid that bats from other caves scattered throughout the area would roost there and be in danger once the waters were raised again.

But while monitoring the passages of the cave, the crew found no evidence of bats. Instead, they were thrilled to find a number of colorful spotted salamanders dotting the cavern’s cracks and crevices.. The presence of just one species would have been more than enough to excite the team, but they observed two skittering about the damp floors.

“It’s always a treat to come across a large number of salamanders, because, as a whole, salamander numbers are at a steady decline across the nation due to habitat loss,” Hamrick said. “We often see cave salamanders during cave surveys, but I’ve never been lucky enough to spot an adult spring salamander underground.”

The Southeastern U.S. has the highest number of salamanders in the world, and Hamrick and her team are in charge of helping to minimize the impact on their habitat by ensuring TVA’s environmental compliance during their activities in and around Boone Reservoir. Streams must be kept clean and clear for many species of amphibians to thrive in the region.

TVA will continue to monitor the salamanders’ health as well as any presence of bats in the cave. 

Though the repairs at Boone Dam will be finished soon, Hamrick said that the salamanders will not lose their newly discovered home or be harmed when the waters rise. There were many upper recesses of the cave that they were not able to explore where the salamanders were likely thriving before the drawdown.

“Amphibians really are canaries in a coal mine — indicator species for the health of our fresh water and terrestrial environments — so it is important for us at TVA to minimize our impacts,” she said. “I believe the more we see their appearance like this, the better off we are as a whole.”