NORTON, Va. — There’s a wetland at the top of a mountain in Wise County. That’s not a typo: Along a ridge of Stone Mountain, 3,000 feet above sea level, sits a boggy pond surrounded by a flat stretch of mud and low grasses, looking for all the world like a little swamp photoshopped over the forest.
Walter “Wally” Smith stood at the edge of the wetland’s small, tea-colored pool. It was Friday, June 25, and Smith — an assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise — was just beginning to explain why it’s hard to find frogs during the day when he was interrupted by a frog.
The creature hopping over the mud at his feet was tiny, well-camouflaged and quick enough that most people would probably have missed it. But Smith, 36, is a herpetologist, a zoologist who specializes in amphibians and reptiles. In seconds, he’d scooped it up and lightly pinned its fingernail-length back legs between his fingers.
“That is a little, recently transformed wood frog,” Smith said as he pulled a camera from his backpack with his free hand. “It probably just left the pond in the last couple weeks.”
The biologist added “wood frog” to the amphibian count he’s keeping as he and Belle Romans — a 20-year-old rising senior at UVa-Wise who is working with him through a summer fellowship — combed the wetland’s edge.
The site is one of six high-altitude wetlands across about 30 miles of Southwest Virginia that Smith and Romans are routinely visiting this summer and early fall, all to answer a simple question: What frogs and salamanders live there?
As far as Smith can tell, nobody else has asked it, and the initial results have already upended scientific knowledge about a particular salamander species. Smith said he hopes that’s just the start.
“I think it’ll help rewrite our understanding of these wetlands,” Smith said. “We’re finding really unique species.”
A wetland, as the name implies, is an area of land that’s either regularly covered by or saturated with water. The best-known types are found along coasts, river floodplains and other low-lying areas.
But the wetlands dotting the upper slopes of the Appalachians don’t even have a firm definition, Smith said. For the amphibian survey, he and Romans have decided to define them as any wetlands higher than about 2,700 feet.
The wetlands’ origins are hazy, but Smith said that some of the study’s sites seem to have formed in little depressions on mountain ridges — places without any nearby streams for rainfall and snowmelt to escape into.
Several of the other sites sit atop something he called a “hanging valley” — a flat, treeless expanse containing a wetland, often at the headwaters of a stream. Glacier movements carved hanging valleys in other mountain ranges, Smith said. Not the ones in the Appalachians.
“This is just more the way the landscape is formed,” he said. “It’s so neat, because it’s not created by humans in any way, but you’ll be walking through the forest and all of a sudden break out [into] bright sunlight — this big wetland where it’s just too wet to have that forest canopy growth,” Smith said.
The wetlands aren’t connected to streams, which means no fish to gobble up frog and salamander eggs, Smith said. If you’re an amphibian looking for good real estate in these mountains, you can’t do much better than a fishless wetland.
While Appalachia’s high-altitude wetlands are extremely rare, Smith said most people either don’t know that they exist or don’t realize what they are.
“We’re losing a lot of these [high-altitude] wetlands, because so many people see them and they think, ‘Oh, it’s just a big mud pit,’” Smith said.
The spots can easily wind up drained or otherwise destroyed in the process of land development and timber harvesting, or just disturbed by human activity, Smith said.
“…We’ve got, in the area, a very big motorized trail boom that’s happening right now,” said Smith, who is also a member of the Clinch Coalition, a community group that advocates for environmental protections in Southwest Virginia. “That’s obviously a fun place to come if you’ve got, you know, an ATV or a truck or a Jeep, but unfortunately then, that churns up a lot of the herp.”
“Herp”: herpetology slang for amphibians and reptiles. “Herping,” Smith explained, is simply the act of looking for those animals, and a “herper,” is one who herps. He said the terms can apply to anyone and everyone, from a 6-year-old poking around in a backyard to a pair of researchers herping in high-altitude wetlands where no herpers have herped before.
Smith said that recording what frogs and “manders,” as he sometimes calls salamanders, live in these unique wetlands is as necessary a research question as it is basic. It’s hard to know how to protect an ecosystem, or notice how it might be changing, if you don’t know what’s in it to begin with, he said.
He’s confident that all of that data will culminate in a peer-reviewed scientific article: an impressive notch in Romans’ belt, he said, since it’s rare for undergraduates to publish research.
“Beyond [that], we’re basically going to hand all of our data off to the [U.S.] Forest Service … because these wetlands are on Forest Service land,” Smith said. “So they’ll know what species are here, what habitat features those species need. … If they’re going to log around this [spot] or do a prescribed burn or something in the future, [the data] can help them better inform their management.”
An out-of-place salamander
The herps at the Stone Mountain wetland seemed cooperative that Friday morning. Within minutes of starting to search the site, Smith plucked two mountain dusky salamanders from under a piece of old cloth tarp. (“Of course [these two are] under junk instead of natural cover,” he said ironically.)
Smith said the species — which belongs to the dusky salamander genus — is extremely common. The pair draped over his palm weren’t the same shade of brown: One had a distinctly yellower hue than the other. The nuance that gave their identity away, he said, was the pale stripe on either side of their heads.
Smith said the species he really hoped to find that morning, a mud salamander, didn’t require any such nuance to identify. It’s a bright, tomato red with black spots.
A mud salamander sparked the entire survey, Smith said. In 2019, during some previous field work, he encountered one at a much higher altitude than he expected to see it.
“[The mud salamander] is known from the area, an Appalachian species we have here, but it’s only really supposed to live, according to the field guides, down in big, bottomland-type wetlands that you find along a major river,” Smith said. “I think it actually says in one of the field guides, ‘Absent from the higher elevations of the Appalachians’ or something.”
But Smith said that since starting the survey in mid-May, he and Romans have spotted the species twice more at high-altitude wetlands: once at a site in Grayson County, once here.
He wasn’t expecting to see one this morning, though.
“That’s like the first rule of herping: All the critters disappear as soon as you talk about them,” Smith said. “Our mud salamander, I’ll be shocked if we see that because I’m hyping it up so hard.”
Slogging through forests and frog call recordings
The team slowly worked their way around the water, turning over every log and stone within a roughly 30-foot band. Eventually, once their mental tally of critters grew unwieldy, Smith would pull out his notebook and start jotting it all down. But the first 20 minutes or so were easy: nothing but mountain duskies — five, then seven, nine, into double digits.
“It’s crazy that we’re seeing that many here,” Smith said. “…We’re probably seeing just a fraction of what’s actually here.”
Their abundance was a good sign for the general area: Smith said that amphibians form a key link in the mountain’s food chain, snapping up energy and nutrients from invertebrates and transferring it to the birds, fish and reptiles that then eat them. If you put all of the salamanders and other amphibians here on a giant scale, they would actually outweigh everything bigger than them, he said.
“They really dominate the vertebrate biomass, the stuff with a backbone, that we have around here,” he said. “Amphibians — it sounds so depressing to say this — they’re really important, ecologically, because they get eaten a lot.”
The only piece of equipment Smith brought beyond his field camera was a “frog logger,” a small digital recorder connected to a mic couched in a cone-shaped plastic amplifier. Smith — by now on the far side of the wetland — strung the mic around the trunk of a mountain laurel, put the recorder in a Tupperware container beneath it and planted a little orange flag to mark the spot.
“[The recorder is] a really good way to inventory the frogs, because even … if we were to come out here at night and walk down to the pond, most of the frogs would quit calling when the word got out that we were here,” Smith said. “Belle’s going to have probably about 54 hours, after this, of frog calls to listen to.”
Besides patience, the research requires stamina. Smith said that most of the high-altitude wetlands he and Romans are surveying require a 2- to 2.5-mile hike and 500 feet of elevation gain, one way. Romans — who sought out the research fellowship after taking two courses with Smith — said she loves it.
“Belle has been a beast,” Smith said of her. “We’ve hiked more than 30 miles in the past month.”
“Kind of like nerd Christmas”
Smith finished sweeping the Stone Mountain wetland alone that morning, though; Romans had to duck out early for her other summer gig, at a women’s clothing boutique in Norton. As the biologist neared the end of his circle around the pond, his now-written tally included a heap of mountain duskies, several more wood frogs and a northern dusky salamander.
“Hah hah!” he said, scooping up one of the mud salamanders he’d been trying not to hope for.
This one was more orange than red, and a dull orange at that. But for the amphibian survey, that was even better: Smith said the drab color, plus the salamander’s small size, meant this one was young — maybe 2 or 3 years old.
“The other one, if it’s out [here], is a big, big adult, probably 10, 12 years old maybe,” Smith said. “This is a good sign, because it shows that we don’t just have a couple old adults who aren’t reproductive anymore—there’s actually reproduction happening here, which is really good for the population.”
Smith snapped a few photos of the animal, set it back down and turned his attention to the next log.
“It’s honestly like being a kid,” he said of the work. “You just never know what you’re going to find. It’s kind of like nerd Christmas, in a way.”
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