February 22, continued. On the way back to the visitor’s center I turn some nice large logs, short and manageable, and hit pay dirt with the marbled salamanders. Just about every log has at least one salamander under it, but one log has two and another, four!
Hiding under another log is a small, slender salamander appropriately called the dwarf salamander, Eurycea quadridigitata. The giveaway clue to its identity is the four toes on its rear feet rather than five as in most salamanders. This character is also reflected in its specific scientific name.
The dwarf salamander has special meaning for me. In 1969, my senior year at Clemson, I signed up for a herpetology and ichthyology class taught by a new professor from Auburn, George Folkerts. At the time most of my biology professors at Clemson were grandfatherly types with white hair or no hair, wore white shirts and black ties to class, and were in the twilight of their careers. Dr. Folkerts was a generation younger and wore open-necked, plaid sports shirts (I found out later that one of his conditions for coming to Clemson was that he would not be required to wear a tie to lecture). He was one of the best professors I ever had, and his enthusiasm for field biology quickly rubbed off on his students. He was one of the few people I knew back then that could walk across South Carolina and give the scientific name of just about every plant and animal he ran across. Although most of his training and experience was in zoology, he told me that he did his master’s thesis on slime molds just because he wanted to learn more about them.
A big part of our classwork was a collection of fish, reptiles, and amphibians that we found scouring the countryside with seines, dip nets, minnow traps, potato rakes for turning logs, and other hardware of the field collector. Quite a few samples we found for our collections were ordinary road kills – D.O.R.s we called them – Dead On the Road. Driving back-country roads on warm spring nights after a rain was an especially productive method of finding herpetological specimens.
One early spring I spent the weekend at my grandparents’ farm in Powdersville in eastern Anderson County. While there I searched for specimens for my collection, and had some luck finding several small salamanders under moist leaf litter in a seepage spring that fed into granddaddy’s farm pond. I think I identified them correctly as dwarf salamanders, but didn’t realize their significance until later in the week when Dr. Folkerts came by the lab to see how our collections were progressing. I will never forget the look on his face when he saw those dwarf salamanders – his eyes became as big as saucer plates, and he blurted out “where did you get those?” And he really became excited when I told him less than twenty miles from Clemson on my grandparents’ farm. It turns out that dwarf salamanders are a common coastal plain species, but are not supposed to occur in the upper piedmont a hundred miles away.
Dr. Folkerts later published this record along with other significant findings made by his students. And I was proud as punch when the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia was published in 1980 (and later the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians) to find on the range map of the dwarf salamander an isolated dot in northwestern South Carolina that represented my grandparents’ farm in Powdersville.
Things have changed quite a bit in the world of herpetological taxonomy since 1969. These changes, primarily as a result of DNA examinations, have mostly affected salamanders. For example when I took herpetology there was only one species of the wide-ranging slimy salamander; now there are ten, including the South Carolina slimy salamander, Plethodon variolatus (maybe a candidate to replace our current state amphibian, the spotted salamander?) What makes this new taxonomy complicated is the fact that all of the ten species of slimy salamanders look similar, and it would take a DNA test to tell them apart.
The dwarf salamander has also been affected by the DNA revolution. It was noted that some populations have a yellow belly whereas others have gray ones. The late College of Charleston biology professor Julian Harrison described those with a yellow belly as a separate species in 2003, naming them Chamberlain’s dwarf salamander, E. chamberlaini, in honor of prominent Charleston naturalist Edward Burnham Chamberlain. The dwarf salamander I find today in the swamp has a very yellow belly, and so is a Chamberlain’s dwarf salamander.