By Whit Gibbons

I received an email inviting me to join the Salamander Club. I was honored, but not because this was a prestigious international society of amphibian scientists. Instead, the invitation was from a 7-year-old, Logan. I felt especially privileged because I would be only the third member of the club. The other member was Logan’s twin brother, Blake.

We planned the inaugural meeting of the club for November, a good time for finding salamanders. Before we began our trip to where I thought the best habitat would be to seek out our quarry, Logan showed me his salamander scrapbook. He had internet photos of newts, tiger salamanders and many others. The book also contained a handwritten, second-grade block print copy of the Salamander Pledge: “I promise to take care of salamanders at all times.” I agreed to honor the pledge, as I hope anyone would do.

Northern Red Salamander (photo courtesy of Sara Viernum)

We spent a few minutes looking at the scrapbook and discussing some of the finer points about salamanders, one of two major groups of U.S. amphibians, the other being frogs and toads. We talked about how big salamanders can get. The scrapbook had a photo of one of the largest in the world, the Japanese giant salamander, which can reach a length of nearly 5 feet. We considered what our local salamanders might eat – earthworms, bugs and smaller salamanders. And, of course, the most important question for the day – how do you catch a salamander? This turned out to be a central issue; two-thirds of the club had never seen a salamander in the wild.

I suggested we go into the swamp to a place where I thought we might remedy that situation. I had brought along my 11-year-old grandson Nick, who agreed to lead the way to a place where we might have some success. We set out over the wooden bridge leading into the swamp from our cabin. Any concerns I had about the twins venturing into a flooded swamp a day after several inches of rain soon vanished. They followed close behind Nick, and I heard not one complaint about wet feet when they stepped into deep holes and swamp water poured into their boots. I did not mention that my feet and Nick’s stayed dry because we knew where the holes were. They were real troopers, and I did not want to dampen their enthusiasm for this swamp adventure.

We eventually reached higher ground where Nick and I had put out cover boards. Cover boards, in this case squares of plywood, are one way to find certain kinds of salamanders. Amphibians, reptiles and many other animals seek refuge under them. Nick picked out a board and turned it over. Success. Beneath the board were two salamanders. One was a yellow one with black stripes (a 3-lined salamander); the other was bright red with yellow eyes (an eastern red salamander). Each of the twins picked up one of the salamanders after receiving instructions on how to do so. The awe in their eyes was marvelous. We took the salamanders back to the cabin in plastic bags to get a closer look.

I do not know if this will be the first step on a career path for either boy, but their early display of a conservation ethic and their fascination with the natural world are impressive. The twins’ experience sends an environmental message to parents of young children. They would not have such enthusiasm for looking at animals in their natural habitats were it not for parental encouragement. The boys did not whine or complain when they got wet and dirty in our trek through the swamp. Kudos to their parents.

After Nick returned the salamanders to their swamp cover board, he was invited to become a member of the Salamander Club. Finding the first salamanders probably earned him his invitation. Taking the pledge assured him a position as salamander guide for the next trip.


Dr. Whit Gibbons is Professor Emeritus of Ecology, University of Georgia, and former Head of the Environmental Outreach and Education program at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). He currently serves on ARC's Board of Directors.