Did you know, West Virginia is home to 34 (and counting) species of salamanders?! Salamanders are amphibians that can range anywhere from four inches to two feet in length. Amphibians are commonly confused for reptiles, but there are a few key differences that can help a novice eye distinguish between the two. The word amphibian is derived from a Greek word meaning double life. One of the biggest differences between amphibians and reptiles is the big life change all amphibians must go through called metamorphosis. Metamorphosis encompasses all of the stages of changing from an egg to an adult. Easily relatable examples are that of a toad, or butterfly (in the insect world). Reptiles on the other hand, do not go through metamorphosis. Upon being hatched reptiles are merely baby versions of their adult parents. Two other key differences between the two are lack of claws and scales. Amphibians have smooth skin. Many would even refer to it as slimy because for the most part, amphibians live in or near water and damp areas. One of the most interesting things about amphibian skin is the permeability, meaning they possess the ability to absorb foreign substances through their skin. This is how lungless salamanders breathe. The permeability of their skin causes salamanders to be extremely sensitive to pollutants in their environment. Because of this, salamanders are revered as being indicator species. An easy way to think about it – if salamanders are present the area is most likely of good health and pollutant free.
Here at Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center, it is not uncommon to stumble across amphibians and reptiles squirming about. Reptiles are found daily on the Via Ferrata. Be mindful of where to step, you never know what you might land on! In the surrounding areas the diversity of salamanders increases with the appropriate amount of suitable habitat. The largest salamander in North America is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, or more commonly called the Hellbender. These elusive critters can measure in at over two feet in length. Better yet, they can be found a short drive down the road from Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center. Now please do not expect to easily find one of these guys crawling around on a trail. The hellbender lurks underneath table sized boulders in cold, pristine mountain streams. Don’t believe it? Well, I can tell you first hand they do exist locally. A group of colleagues and I assisted a research biologist in catching a prize specimen for his research on the effects climate change may have on hellbenders. After many hours of stumbling and fumbling our way through stream after stream in the pouring down rain, we epically overturned a massive rock, dove underneath and frantically grabbed blindly for something that could or could not exist. “I felt a foot” someone screamed! A couple feet away a net was raised and a 25 inch long prize specimen was lofted joyously into the air.
A variety of amphibians and reptiles can be found at Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center and throughout the surrounding area. If you are interested in finding your own Hellbender, but are not willing to put in all of the work, try visiting Hellbender Burritos in Davis, West Virginia for an abnormally large sized burrito. Or, go out and catch a smaller and easier to find, silly sally for yourself!