Salamander saga

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The Red Hill salamander is Alabama’s official state amphibian. It was so designated by the Legislature in 2000 as a result of a campaign by third graders at Fairhope Elementary School guided by teachers Susan Sims and Amy Jones. Following is an account of the discovery of the salamander, research on the species and other relevant facts thereto pertaining.
In 1960 Mr. Leslie Hubricht, a snail expert, collected a salamander he did not recognize while searching for snails on a forested ravine slope near McKenzie in southern Alabama. Ultimately, the specimen was examined by Dr. Richard Highton, a salamander expert, who described it as a new genus and species and gave it the name Phaegnathus hubrichti.
Previously the last new genus of salamander described was by Dr. Archie Carr in 1939, who described Haideotriton wallacei on the basis of a single specimen from an artesian well near Albany, Ga. It was pale in color, eyeless, and became known as the Georgia blind salamander.
Shortly after Highton’s publication describing P. hubrichti, he brought the specimen to a meeting of herpetologists, who were amazed that the species had been undiscovered for so long.
For the next two years, herpetologists from several places visited the site where the salamander was secured but could not find another. If my memory serves me correctly, a year later some herpetologists from Ohio were visiting Alabama and by happenstance visited the site at night. Then and there they found several Phaeognathus, poking their heads from the mouths of inconspicuous burrows.
Several Auburn graduate students and I began attempting to learn more about the salamanders – their habits, distribution, relative abundance and status. We determined the range was confined to a narrow belt of a physiographic region called the Red Hills and that the species did not occur west of the Alabama River or east of the Conecuh River. Populations were found in portions of Monroe, Conecuh, Butler, Crenshaw, and Covington counties. A disjunct population was recently found in Wilcox County.
One of the students involved in  the research was Ralph Jordan Jr., son of the late Auburn football coach Shug Jordan. Ralph and I attended a meeting, during which Ralph elaborated on the results of our research, which included a recommendation that the Red Hills salamander, the common name applied to the animal at the time, be listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species.
The presentation was published in the proceedings of the meeting.
Much of the land inhabited by the salamander was owned by large timber and pulpwood companies, and when they learned of the recommendation, they pitched a hissy fit and registered their opposition to the species being listed as threatened. To make matters worse, the “Mobile-Press Register,” on its front page, headlined “Salamander Could Halt Timber Harvesting In South Alabama.” Newspapers all over South Alabama editorialized against the proposal. An editorial in the “Wilcox Progressive Era,” written by then publisher, the late Hollis Curl, stated, “If Professor Mount and Coach Shug Jordan’s son would stop coming down here and crawling around in the woods at night, we’d not be having this problem.”
I should mention: after the listing of the species as threatened in 1976, people began to realize that timber harvesting could continue, and that, all things considered, the result might actually be beneficial, and then Hollis and I became good friends.
Corporate owners are now careful to avoid practices that may destroy the salamander’s habitats. Wild turkeys and a variety of other wildlife species thrive in the habitats. Several thousand acres of Red Hills habitats have been purchased by the Nature Conservancy and by the Forever Wild Program administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, all of which are available for hunting, hiking, and other non-commercial activities.
The latest breaking news on the Red Hills salamander is a report by the Cincinnati Zoo that a   captive R. H. salamander in its possession has reached the ripe old age of 36 years, the oldest salamander on record.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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