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Master Naturalists search Kanawha State Forest with salamander guru

By Rick Steelhammer, Staff writer
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Retired Marshall University Professor Tom Pauley tells Master Naturalists what to look for as they prepare to catch and identify salamanders in Polly Hollow of Kanawha State Forest.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Master Naturalists turn over rocks and scan the streambank for salamanders as part of a field work project in Kanawha State Forest.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette photos Master Naturalist Jim Waggy examines object netted from a pond along Spotted Salamander Trail in Kanawha State Forest.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette A group of Kanawha County Master Naturalists and Master Naturalist students begin a search for salamanders along Kanawha State Forest's Spotted Salamander Trail.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Master Naturalist instructor Tom Pauley overturns a rock and shines a flashlight to look for salamanders in a tributary of Davis Creek as dusk arrives at Kanawha State Forest.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Tom Pauley holds a Kentucky spring salamander, one of 34 salamander species found in West Virginia, captured during a Master Naturalist field work project in Kanawha State Forest.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette A Master Naturalist holds a streambed rock that hosts a cluster of salamander eggs.

As a group of 15 Master Naturalist trainees turned over rocks and logs and probed the murky waters of a pond along Kanawha State Forest’s Spotted Salamander Trail in search of salamanders one evening last week, retired Marshall University herpetologist Tom Pauley gazed at a site across the pond where his lifelong interest in the moisture-loving amphibians blossomed nearly 50 years ago.

At that time, Pauley was teaching science at Woodrow Wilson Junior High on Charleston’s West Side while also taking a post-graduate course on amphibians and reptiles from Dr. N. Bayard Green at Marshall. “I’d become so interested in Dr. Green’s class that I would head out here to Kanawha State Forest and go looking for amphibians and reptiles as soon as I got off work, often without taking time to change out of my good shoes, dress pants, sports coat and tie,”Pauley said. “One day, I was at this pond looking for spotted salamanders, and saw one move out from under a log and go into the water, and I went after it — tie, sports coat, dress shoes and all. I caught it, and that was it for me. I fell in love with salamanders. It was a life-changing experience.”

It was in Kanawha State Forest in 1966 that Pauley, accompanied by his wife and son, found several four-toed salamanders — a species previously believed not to exist in Kanawha County — and drove several specimens to Huntington to show his mentor, Dr. Green. “He was as excited about it as I was,” Pauley recalled.

Since then, Pauley, who earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Charleston, a master’s degree from Marshall and a Ph.D. from WVU, went on to teach biology-related courses at Salem College, the University of Pittsburgh and Marshall, where he spent 26 years as a professor before retiring last year. He also earned a reputation as the state’s leading expert on salamanders, particularly the Cheat Mountain salamander, a threatened species known to exist only in five northeastern West Virginia counties.

Since 1976, Pauley has conducted Cheat Mountain Salamander surveys at more than 1,300 sites across northeastern West Virginia, finding populations of the threatened species in about 70 of them. Later, Pauley wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the rare, gold-flecked, all-West Virginia salamander.

At dusk on Tuesday, Pauley and his son-in-law, Dr. Mark Watson of UC’s biology department, led a group of Kanawha Valley Master Naturalists along Spotted Salamander Trail and then up Polly Hollow, where a dirt road criss-crosses a shallow stream known to contain salamanders.

“Kanawha State Forest is a great place for finding salamanders,” Pauley said. “There are a lot of streams and plenty of shade. It’s a very big forest that hasn’t changed much since the 1960s — just a few more paved roads and picnic areas.”

Kanawha State Forest is home to 14 confirmed salamander species and an additional five species that have not been sighted here, but are suspected of living in the 9,300-acre preserve, where their habitat needs would be met.

West Virginia is home to 34 species of salamanders, ranging from stream-dwelling hellbenders that can reach two feet in length to several smaller species that rarely exceed four inches.

“I love them all,” Pauley said. In addition to their unique colors, color patterns, shapes and modes of life, salamanders, he said, “are much easier to find and work with than lizards, which are hard to find and catch, and come in only six species in West Virginia.”

Salamanders are also “a major link in the food chain,” Pauley said. “They eat insects by the thousands, and are themselves a wonderful protein source for the predators who feed on them. And they’re great bioindicators — if you don’t find them in places where you should be seeing them, something unfavorable is going on in the environment.”

On Tuesday, the net-wielding Master Naturalists accompanying Pauley and Watson into salamander country at Kanawha State Forest, began to produce finds within minutes after arriving at the pond along Spotted Salamander Trail.

“These are four-toed salamander eggs,” Pauley said, as a cluster of whitish spheres,which on close inspection turned out to be developing embryos, encompassed in clear gelatinous orbs was pulled from the edge of the pond in a net. “They’re the smallest salamander in the state,” he said.

“That’s a good find,” Pauley said, as he examined the contents of another net that contained a marbled salamander, a black and white banded amphibian that breeds in the fall. Another net produced a red-spotted newt, one of state’s most common salamanders.

As the group left the pond and walked to the mouth of Polly Hollow, Pauley stopped to take in a high-pitched, melodic sound coming from a puddle along a dirt road. “That’s a nice chorus coming from a group of mountain chorus frogs,” he said.

As darkness descended on the forest and thunder rumbled in the distance, Master Naturalists continued to pull specimens from a tributary of Davis Creek. As Pauley identified eggs attached to the bottom of a large creek rock as those produced by a two-lined salamander, Master Naturalists used flashlights and headlamps to scan the creek for more salamanders. After several near misses, a northern dusky, a Kentucky spring salamander and a seal salamander were captured.

“This one will eventually double in size,” Pauley said, holding a young spring salamander, which can reach eight inches in length as an adult. The seal salamander gets its name from the miniature seal-like profile it projects while sitting atop a rock, feeding on flying insects. Dusky salamanders, he said, are commonly used as bass bait by anglers.

Tuesday’s salamander foray in Kanawha State Forest was the field work component of a Master Naturalist class on amphibians that Pauley taught several weeks ago.

“People in the Master Naturalist program tend to develop a deep interest in nature that I hope will be used to influence friends and relatives,” Pauley said.

Though retired from Marshall, Pauley continues to conduct surveys for Cheat Mountain salamanders and other amphibian and reptile species for the U.S. Forest Service and other clients across the state.

“I feel very blessed to have walked hundreds of miles from the New River Gorge to Blackwater Canyon to look for them,”he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

As that experience continues for Pauley into his 70s, there could be added benefits. “You don’t know what’s lurking out there,” he said. “I suspect there are species out there yet to be found.”

West Virginia’s Master Naturalist program is open to anyone with an interest in nature and a willingness to learn more about it. There are no educational requirements needed to qualify for the program. To become certified as a West Virginia Master Naturalist, candidates must complete 64 hours of formal classroom and field work, and complete 30 hours of approved volunteer service. Due to scheduling issues and instructor availability, it often takes two or more years to complete the coursework and volunteer service. The next class cycle starts in October.There are currently 11 Master Naturalist chapters in West Virginia, including one in Kanawha County.For more information or to register, visit, send an email to, or call state Master Naturalist coordinator Penny Miller at 304-243-4027.In Kanawha County, prospective students can register with Carolyn Barker at

Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169.


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