Measuring salamander breaths

Eric peers at a redbacked salamander while Andrew records how much oxygen it breathes.

Imagine that the temperature inside your body, instead of being a toasty 98.6°F, was simply determined by the temperature of the air outside. All of the processes taking place in your body would be determined by the weather – your breathing, your heart rate, your appetite and your ability to fight off a cold. If you were a child, the weather would determine how fast you grow up. If you were an adult, the weather would dictate your ability to conceive a child.

Imagine all this, and then imagine that the weather was changing. Read more

Kimberly Terrell, Ph.D.

Wrangling amphiumas is good practice for wrangling hellbenders.

My job: Salamander Wrangler

Real title: Research Associate, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute; Adjunct Faculty, Tulane University

Education: University of New Orleans, Ph.D., 2011

How I help save sallies: I search the swamps and mountains for new populations of rare salamanders. Knowing where these critters roam is the first step to protecting them. I also conduct field and lab research to understand how climate change affects the health of amphibians, particularly giant salamanders. Finally, I’m the voice behind this website! I created to spread the word about salamander research and conservation.

Cirriculum vitae

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Luren Augustine

Lauren helps a sea turtle sneak its way on to our salamander website.

Lauren helps a sea turtle sneak its way on to our salamander website.

My job: Herpetological Smack Talker

Real title: Animal Keeper, Reptile Discovery Center (RDC), Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park

Education: Currently working towards a M.S. in Conservation Science & Policy at George Mason University.

How I help save sallies: My job is to keep the zoo’s salamanders happy and to educate visitors about these incredible species. At the RDC we care for a diverse group of salamanders, including hellbenders, Japanese Giant Salamanders and red-back salamanders. Read more

Brad Nissen

Brad exploring the Grand Canyon.

Brad exploring the Grand Canyon.

My job: Salamander Sidekick

 Real title: Amphibian Research and Husbandry Intern

Education: B.S., Environmental Science, University of Mary Washington,  2011

How I help save sallies: I lend a hand at the Salamander Lab wherever possible; keeping our resident hellbenders well-fed and their water clean. Read more

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay's moment of salamander inspiration.

Lindsay’s moment of salamander inspiration.

My job: Champion of the Slimy Underdogs

Real title: Communications Specialist

Education: Master’s in journalism from Northwestern University

How I help save sallies: As a salamander storyteller, I’m charged with telling the most compelling stories about these amazing species and letting people know not only why they should want to protect salamander biodiversity, but what they can do to help. Read more

Veronica Acosta

Veronica performs a hellbender physical exam at the National Zoo.

Veronica performs a hellbender physical exam at the National Zoo.

My job: Nurse Hellbender

Real title: Licensed Veterinary Technician

Education: Northern Virginia Community College Veterinary Technology Program, 2004

How I help save sallies: I collect blood samples and skin swabs from the zoo’s hellbenders for Kim’s climate change study.

Best salamander story:  How many people can say they’ve been pee’d on by a hellbender?? I can! Such an amazing species. I’m so glad to be helping!

Rick Quintero

Saving salamanders one PVC elbow at a time.

Saving salamanders one PVC elbow at a time.

My job: Conservation Plumber

Real title: Animal Keeper, Reptile Discovery Center (RDC), Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park

Education: B.S. in Biology from University of Maryland.

How I help save sallies: I specialize in all things aquatic. At the zoo, I designed and built the tanks for our hellbenders and their cousins, the Japanese giant salamanders.This means I also get called in when there’s a water-related problem (everything from water quality issues to leaky tanks), or when a new system needs to be set up. Read more

John (JD) Kleopfer

Score one for the swamp thing.

Score one for the swamp thing.

Institution: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

My job: Swamp Thing Noodler

Real title: Herpetologist

Education: M.S. Environmental Science, Christopher Newport University

How I help save sallies: Through partnerships, education and research.

Best salamander story:  While working for the Virginia Living Museum as the Curator of Herpetology in the early 1990s, a woman brought into the museum a large brown salamander in a cup. Read more

Jennifer Sevin

Jen 7 spotted a salamander.

Jen 7 spotted a salamander.

My job: Underworld Explorer

Real title:  Biodiversity Conservation Biologist, Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Education:  B.S. Environmental Science from FIU; M.S. in Zoology from NCSU; Ph.D. candidate GMU

How I help save sallies:  My main goal is to link science, management and education.  In my job, I have the opportunity to conduct amphibian related training for undergraduate students, graduate students and professionals.  In my spare time, I conduct field research to help bridge science and management.  My current research involves studying the endangered Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah) in Shenandoah National Park. Read more

Jeff Briggler, Ph.D.

The hellbender whisperer at work in Missouri.

The hellbender whisperer at work in Missouri.

Institution: Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC)

My job: Hellbender Whisperer

Real title: Herpetologist

Education: University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Ph.D., 2005.

How I help save sallies:   I’m responsible for protecting and monitoring the 112 species of amphibians and reptiles in Missouri, including hellbenders. As state herpetologist it’s my duty to ensure that none of these remarkable species go extinct during my watch. Read more

Eric J. Chapman



Institution: Western Pennsylvania Conservancy – Watershed Conservation Program

My job: I lift car-sized boulders.

Real title: Director of Aquatic Science

Education:Montclair State University,MA, 2004

How I help save sallies: I work to document the elusive hellbender in as many streams as possible in western Pennsylvania because we can’t protect salamanders if we don’t know they exist. Since 2007, we have identified several new sites for this imperiled species in the Allegheny River watershed. Read more

Kelly Irwin

"Boo-Boo" befriends a female snapper.

“Boo-Boo” befriends a female snapper.

Institution: Arkansas Game & Fish Commission

My job: Boo Boo Biologist (because I’m always incurring some minor injury, I got that nickname from my parents when I was still a little kid, long before there was a Honey Boo Boo)

Real title: Herpetologist

Education: Texas A&M University, Wildlife & Fisheries Science, M.S., 1997 (but not a native Texan)

How I help save sallies: As the state agency herpetologist I am in charge of the conservation and management of the 120+ species of amphibians and reptiles that occur in the state of Arkansas. Read more

Evan H. Campbell Grant, Ph.D.

My job: Salamander Secret Investigator

Real title: Research Wildlife Biologist

Education: PhD, University of Maryland, College Park, 2009

How I help save sallies: As a wildlife biologist, I conduct research on salamanders that can aid species conservation and management. Read more

Andrew Loudon

Andy gives each hellbender a bath to remove foreign bacteria before swabbing its skin.

Andy gives each hellbender a bath to remove foreign bacteria before swabbing its skin.

Institution: James Madison University

My job: Salamander Slime Collector

Real title: Graduate Student

Education:  Mount Union College, B.S., 2011. James Madison University, M.S., 2013

How I help save sallies: In the laboratory of Dr. Reid Harris, we study the microbial communities living on amphibians’ skin and how they protect against the amphibian fungal disease, chytridiomycosis. Read more

Climate change in Appalachia

Climate change may be the single biggest threat facing Appalachian salamanders. Here are the basic facts:


What are some signs that climate change is already occuring?

Average temperatures increased 2°F since 1970 and extreme temperatures have also increased.

extreme weather with map







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Fish with yellow bumps… everywhere!!!

A black-nose dace with large yellow bumps on its belly.

In our last post we shared a video about hellbenders as “water detectors”. Other species (especially mussels and macroinvertebrates) can also help us detect problems in freshwater habitats. So when our science team is surveying for hellbenders in the wild, we make note of anything unusual we find. Last summer, we were wrangling hellbenders with Eric Chapman in western Pennsylvania, when he caught a fantail darter in his net. Darters are pretty common little fish (though some species are endangered) but there was something very unusual about this one – its belly was covered with yellow bumps! Eric had been surveying these streams since 2005 and had never seen anything like it. Read more

How can dirt threaten a hellbender?

Find out in this short video by Joseph Oak, a design student at Carnegie Mellon University.

Growing putrid bacteria to help hellbenders

A. hydrophila

How do festering plates of bacteria contribute to hellbender conservation? At the National Zoo, we’re growing bacteria to understand how climate change will effect hellbender health. Read more

Mad Scientists wrap up their experiments as the hurricane blows in.

Mad Scientist at the National Zoo's Haunted Salamander Lab.

The winds picked up during the final, frightening night of Boo at the Zoo. But visitors braved the weather to visit the Haunted Salamander Lab and meet our nocturnal hellbenders. As hurricane Sandy rolled in, the mad scientists mixed the last of their potions and completed their bizarre experiments.


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Ladybugs, Pirates and Hellbenders, Oh My!

Ladybugs love hellbenders!

What a night! We had all sorts of fantastic creatures crawl into the Haunted Salamander Lab – vikings, ladybugs, GI Joes, pirates, bats and more. Visitors posed with a life-sized hellbender model and got to see the lab’s young (3-year old), resident hellbenders swimming at peak activity.

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Visitors get a close encounter with the National Zoo’s elusive hellbenders!

The first night of Boo at the Zoo was full of mad scientists, creepy costumes and spooky salamanders! As the sun set and the lab grew darker, our sleepy hellbenders wiggled out from under their rocks to greet the ‘morning’. Read more


A team of neoprene-clad scientists are on the loose in Appalachia.  Who are they?  Wildlife biologists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.  Their mission?  To investigate the disappearance of creatures so remarkable, so bizarre that they defy the laws of normal biology.  Yes, we’re talking about salamanders.  Explore this website, read their science blog, and learn more about the insidiously cute amphibians known as salamanders.

It’s raining hellbenders

Barbara and Brian swab a hellbender’s skin to look for ‘good bacteria’ that can help fight disease.

We met up with Eric’s team early this morning excited to wrangle some hellbenders.  Barbara and Brian had never seen one in the wild, and we were going to a great site.  Eric expected to find 15-20 benders today!  But after the first hour of intense searching with no success, I was starting to wonder.  It would pretty much have to start raining hellbenders for us to meet Eric’s goal…

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Bringing out the big guns

Time for another trip to Pennsylvania!  This time I have two people from the zoo joining me: Barbara Watkins (an animal keeper at the Reptile Discovery Center) and Brian Gratwicke (amphibian biologist, photographer extraordinaire, and my supervisor).  Eric was originally going to survey the same creek we were at last time, but when he heard that my boss was coming, he rearranged their schedule and took us to the best hellbender site in the region.  Woo-hoo!  Yup, Eric’s pretty much the best research collaborator you could ask for.

“Are you from Jersey Shore?”

Lauren and I spent the night at a campground just around the corner from the site.  On our way into town, we stopped at a small grocery store and ended up making friends with the profusely muscular and impossibly tanned cashier clerk (Lauren opened the conversation with “Are you from Jersey Shore?” which I think he appreciated).  Two of his friends were hanging out, and one of them, a nursing student, was very interested in the health component of our hellbender study.  She’d never heard of a hellbender, and when I pulled out our life-sized model she was completely floored.  How could a 2 foot long salamander that belongs in a “Jurassic Park” prequel be living in the streams of central Pennsylvania?!?   Read more