The ginseng hunters on Smoky Mountain Money are on a tight schedule – ‘senging season is short – and probably aren’t always sensitive to the environment around them (save threats and signs of ginseng). But even with that nose-to-the-ground work ethic, it can be difficult to ignore the sheer volume of wildlife crowded onto the ginseng-rich mountains. As many ecologists point out, the Appalachians are not only the location of some of North America’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, they’re also populated by many species endemic to colder regions; the higher altitudes make the mountains habitable for these creatures. And like any ecosystem with longstanding biological diversity, many species that dot the Appalachian landscape are entirely unique to the region.
Here are four species you won’t find anywhere else outside of Appalachia:
Tennessee Cave Salamander
According to the Highlands Biological Station, there are more salamander species in Appalachia than in any other region in the world. Specifically, the Smoky Mountains have a large concentration of lungless salamanders that breath through their skin. These species include Gyrinophilus palleucus, better known as the Tennessee cave salamander. The official amphibian of the volunteer state, the Tennessee cave salamander is somewhat distinguishable from the many other salamanders lurking the mountains because of its long body and flat head. But good luck finding it: the amphibian resides in secluded limestone caves.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation recently listed the salamander as threatened, as its breathing mechanisms make it particularly intolerant of environmental pollution.
Northern Flying Squirrel
Living in the conifers and northern hardwood trees of the Appalachians, the northern flying squirrel glides between the tree tops at night seeking insects and nuts. According to the Federal Wildlife Service, the northern flying squirrel is distinct from other flying squirrel kind because of its size, weight and longer upper teeth. They’re a rare sight for humans as they’re generally nocturnal, but as the picture below suggests, they get out occasionally.
Kentucky Arrow Darter
According to an ecological history of Appalachia by Discover Life, a conservation organization supported by several universities and government agencies, there are more wild fish species in Tennessee than in Europe. The National Wildlife Foundation concluded that rivers and streams in Southern Appalachia are home to over half of the 850 freshwater fish species in the U.S. and Canada. The Kentucky arrow darter is one of these fish. Unique to the state, the Kentucky arrow darter is colorful and small, and is subject to predation by larger fish and birds. Like many other species on this list, the fish is severely threatened by environmental degradation, and has seemed to only gain attention as its population has shrunk.
Cherokeea attakullakulla Gray Moth
As fewer and fewer parts of the earth remain untouched by human activity, the number of undiscovered species becomes rarer. This explains why scientists were ecstatic earlier this year about the re-discovery of a type of gray moth hidden in the Smoky Mountain National Park. Sure, it’s not the world’s sexiest discovery, but in an age where many species face encroachment by development, pollution and other forms of human interference, the discovery of a previously unknown species represents the continuing mysteries of extremely diverse environments like the Appalachians.
Tune in to Smoky Mountain Money tonight on Nat Geo Channel at 10 p.m.!