Campus News

Big Discovery

Warnell researchers help find the second-smallest salamander in U.S.

Researchers from UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources weren’t looking for anything new when they went exploring in the northeast part of the state. But they ended up making a big discovery of a tiny animal, finding a new species of salamander that could change what scientists know about some amphibians.

The newly discovered salamander, which is the second-smallest salamander species in the U.S. and one of the smallest in the world at just two inches long, is now under study by a diverse group of researchers from several U.S. colleges. The team is searching for more of the salamanders, which have been detailed in the Journal of Zoology.

The discovering research team consists of Carlos Camp, a professor at Piedmont College; Joe Milanovich, a Warnell School graduate student; Bill Peterman, a University of Missouri graduate student; Trip Lamb, a professor at East Carolina University; John Maerz, an assistant wildlife professor at Warnell; and David Wake, a professor at the University of California Berkeley.

The initial discovery came near Toccoa in spring 2007, when Peterman and Milanovich stumbled across a small salamander while collecting another species of salamander in Stephens County. They knew they’d found an animal not known in that region but did not yet know it was a new species. Milanovich works with Maerz, and called him. Maerz advised them to take the salamander to Camp, who recognized it as a new species. Lamb used genetics to confirm the new species and establish its relationship to other species in the region. Wake’s role in the study was to examine the skeleton of the animal and compare that to what is known of other species. His illustrations of the foot morphology and other descriptions of the animal’s skeleton appear in the journal paper.

After the students found the first salamander, a female with eggs, in a creek, researchers went back repeatedly looking for others. That is when Maerz’s then-10-year-old son, Jack, and Milanovich found the first male specimen. The research team has found several individuals at the original site, including larvae, and they have found the new species at two other nearby locations in Georgia. Collaborators also found the species at a nearby site in South Carolina.
This discovery could yield new information on the evolution of stream salamanders in this region, according to Maerz.

“Whenever you find something new, it has the potential to change what we know about a range of related species,” he said. “There are more than 560 species of salamanders worldwide, and approximately 10 percent are found in Georgia.”

But that’s not the only reason Maerz is excited. The new species was found in a well-traveled area in a creek right next to a road, almost hidden in plain sight.

To make such a find in an area with extensive human activity, Maerz said, proves that “there are still things out there to discover. It makes you wonder, what else is out there?”

With funding from the Environmental Resources Network, Milanovich and Camp are leading research efforts to describe the ecology of the tiny creatures.

“It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved in such a big find, particularly one right in our backyard,” Milanovich said. “The fact that it is such a unique animal makes it all the better and gives us more opportunity to continue to learn about the species.”

The research team’s suggested common name is patch-nosed salamander, based on the lighter coloring on the tiny salamander’s nose. The formal Latin name is Urspelerpes brucei for Richard Bruce, professor emeritus at Western Carolina University and a well-respected, longtime salamander researcher with connections to many members of the research team.

“Dr. Bruce has done much of the foundational work on stream salamander ecology in the region and on the evolution of miniaturization in salamanders, so naming this species after him is a good fit,” Maerz said.

Camp marveled at the find.

“The real significance of this find,” he said, “is that it represents the first new genus of four-footed creature discovered in the United States in 50 years.”