A salamander on a log at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
December 27, 2022

You may be surprised to know that there are 30 salamander species that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, the population of salamanders in the park is so high that they would collectively outweigh all the mammals in the park! While most mammals, amphibians and reptiles spend the colder months in Tennessee hunkered down in burrows waiting for the warmer weather, winter is actually a busy time for salamanders! Here are the top 3 reasons why you can see salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the winter:

1. Salamanders are Active During the Winter

The most obvious reason why you can see salamanders in the park during the winter is simply because they are active during the winter months! While they are ectothermic (“cold blooded”) animals that don’t produce their own body heat, they are still active at a low thermal temperature. You might even spot a salamander walking over some snow while you’re taking a winter hike through the park! Other ectothermic animals, like snakes, frogs, and anoles, are usually less active this time of year. Of course, on the coldest days of winter, salamanders may dig downward or shelter in caves.

2. Winter is Breeding Season for Many Salamanders

salamander in the Smoky Mountains

Many salamanders come out to breed during the winter months when the forests are moist and quiet. When trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park go into a dormant stage in the winter, they stop drawing moisture into their roots. As a result, water collects in temporary pools in the forest when it rains. These pools appear annually and create the perfect habitat for salamanders to lay eggs! The eggs are darkly colored so that they can absorb sunlight and keep themselves warm enough to grow. Salamanders are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, so the precise timing of salamander breeding is controlled by the weather and climate.

3. Hellbenders Hatch During the Winter

Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America and they breed from September into November. Winter is the perfect time for them to hatch as the risk of being eaten by a fish is much lower than during the other times of year! Although fish always pose a threat since they eat larval salamanders, they are slower and less active when the water temperature drops in the winter. Once the eggs have hatched, hellbenders spend most of the winter months snacking on crayfish and giant dobsonfly larvae. The male and female hellbenders eventually grow into an average length of 10 to 16 inches, while some may grow up to two feet long! If you want to see a hellbender or other salamander this winter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it might be just as easy as moving a log (just be careful when putting it back!).

Now that you know why you can see salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the winter, learn about some of the other wildlife you can see in the Smoky Mountains during the winter months!