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Studying Salamanders in Southern Appalachia


Students in the Ben Fitzpatrick Lab are encouraged to pose big questions about the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. Over the years, projects have included Matt Neimiller’s description of speciation in cave-fishes, Zach Marion’s proposal of new methods to measure and analyze diversity, and Cassie Dresser’s evaluation of genetic diversity in endangered bog turtles.

Fitzpatrick students, however, tend to be enthusiastic about a particular group of organisms: salamanders.

Salamanders symbolize biodiversity in the Southern Appalachians. They also represent all of the major questions in biodiversity science: What determines how many species can coexist in an ecosystem? How do new species arise? What explains individual variation within species? What is a species, anyways?

Ben Fitzpatrick received a faculty development leave for the fall semester so that he could spend long days sampling salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His goal is to re-evaluate patterns of diversity in large woodland salamanders and test hypotheses about the effects of competition, hybridization, and climate on species boundaries and coexistence.

Ben Holt, a second-year PhD student, has questions about diversity on a finer scale. He is investigating the microbes that inhabit the slimy skin of salamanders: the cutaneous microbiome. The diversity and composition of this microbiome might be modified as brook salamanders switch between aquatic and terrestrial life stages. Salamanders might also directly manipulate the cutaneous microbiome via various skin secretions. Holt is using microbial and biochemical techniques (in addition to long nights catching salamanders in the Smoky Mountain streams) to evaluate the importance of these factors in shaping the cutaneous microbiome.

Undergraduate students in the lab are pursuing other threads. Brianna Drake is using population genetics to study hybridization between stream-dwelling salamanders in the genus Desmognathus. Alex Funk is using DNA extracted from salamander feces to study their diets. Bryce Wade is studying small salamander occupancy of forest fragments within the city of Knoxville.

The UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology is the perfect place for students to study salamanders. After all, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the salamander capital of the world.