Students learn about salamanders with Weiler Woods for Wildlife

Published 12:12 pm Wednesday, June 28, 2023

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It’s been quite the adventure for Weiler Woods for Wildlife as they taught more than 1,500 Polk County students during afterschool and in classrooms this semester about underdog species! 

David Riddle, volunteer afterschool teacher, covered topics such as pollinators, birds and raptors during the sessions. Students have learned about how all things in nature are connected and that animals need a space with shelter, water, food and native plants to support wildlife, so habitat is of vital importance.

In one of their final afterschool sessions, Riddle introduced the topic of salamanders and asked how they are different from lizards. Riddle explained that lizards have dry scaly skin while salamanders have moist smooth skin. Generally, salamanders have four toes on each front leg and five toes on the rear legs, while lizards have five toes on each leg. Salamanders and lizards both control insect populations, including ants, spiders, beetles, termites and those pesky mosquitos. 

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Aquatic salamanders inhabit clean rivers, streams and ponds, and are good indicators of a healthy water environment, essential for fish and other water creatures. The largest is the hellbender, known affectionately as the snot otter, which can grow up to four pounds and thirty inches long. They usually live under large rocks for protection from predators and can live up to thirty-five years in the wild, but if their homes are disturbed they may die. Hellbenders exist in a vulnerable state as water habitats diminish and degrade.

With over fifty species of salamanders living in western NC, you might spot one of the woodland salamanders, such as an Eastern (red-spotted) newt, a spotted salamander or even the endangered green salamander. Although they may seem elusive, in terms of biomass it’s estimated their populations are greater than most birds and mammals. Hard to believe, but there could easily be twice as many salamanders in a forest than there are birds, with more than 1,000 salamanders per acre in some areas!! 

Of great interest to medical research, most salamanders, except the hellbender, have amazing abilities to regenerate lost or damaged body parts. As Riddle says, even though they’re shy, secretive creatures, they’re still part of the web of life and deserve our attention and protection so they don’t disappear. 

Reflecting on their mission to inspire and empower the next generation through art and education to be champions for wildlife, all of the Weiler Woods for Wildlife school sessions include an art component. During the salamander sessions, students were provided with air-dry clay and clay tools, to create salamanders in various sizes and shapes, with some hellbenders even peeking out beneath clay rocks. Karen Dacey has created and led the art projects, with the help of Riddle, Loti Woods, Dale Weiler, and volunteers Rob Fuller, Cathy Brettman, Greg Mitchell, Ann Gleason, Sarah Costine and Debbie Junge. With such a plethora of talent in our community, the organization encourages more artists to get involved!

As a source of inspiration for the students, Loti Woods often brings a casting of a hellbender sculpture created by her husband, Dale Weiler. Weiler also creates and sells stone wildlife sculptures to benefit Weiler Woods for Wildlife with the hopes of generating awareness and change for animals at risk. To learn more please visit


Submitted by Karen Dacey