Field Trips

Salamander Research Field Trip (Middle School)

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
State Standards:
North Carolina Essential Standards  Grade 8 Science Clarifying objectives 8.L.1.1, 8.L.3.1, 8.L.3.2, 8.L.3.3, 8.L.4.1, 8.L.4.2


The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World!” Salamanders are an especially abundant and diverse group in the park. Researchers use salamanders as a bio-indicator to help assess the health of our forests threatened by air pollution and impacts from a changing climate. When students visit the Smokies on their field trip, one group will be collecting data as part of a Salamander study. The activities in this packet will introduce the scientific method and use the identifying anatomical characteristics to key different species of salamanders.

In the park, some salamanders spend all of their life in the water; these are classified as aquatic salamanders. Other salamanders spend most of their lives out of the water, coming back to streams to mate and lay eggs, we classify these as semi-aquatic. There are also some salamanders that never are found in the water, not even to lay eggs. These are classified as terrestrial salamanders.

Some students who visit the Smokies participate in a salamander research study. The research project is designed to answer a couple different questions about salamanders. One is "How far from water will aquatic and semi-aquatic salamanders move?". Another is "How close to the water will we find terrestrial salamanders?". For both questions, we want to know what weather and other abiotic (non-living) conditions are like while data is being collected. During the study, we also visually check the health of salamanders and collect data about that that includes their length, weight and species. To do this study, we set out a series of "tree cookies" that lead from the edge of a creek out into the forest in a transect, which is a line that follows a bearing set up with a compass (e.g. we might set up a line that follows a bearing of due North). Each cookie is placed 5 meters apart and each row has 10 cookies in it. Each salamander study plot in the park has 4 rows for a total of 40 cookies. This lesson will allow students to create a graph using previously collected salamander data stored on the Hands on the Land website. After graphing the data, the students will make inferences in determining a predictor of salamander behavior.

To be a scientist you don't necessarily have to have an advanced degree. All you need to have is the ability to observe the world around you and to ask good questions. Why do things happen? How do they happen? Scientists use a systematic method to find answers to their questions. The approach is known as the scientific method or scientific inquiry. The key components to this method are: making careful observations using your senses (sometimes that includes noticing what is not there as well as what is), asking a question that is clear and specific, gathering information from literature to develop a procedure for study and to discover what is already known about your question, forming a hypothesis (possible answers to the question), testing the hypothesis (surveys, experiments and field observations are techniques), interpreting the results (make sense of your data by creating graphs or charts), drawing conclusions (was the hypothesis correct, what can you learn from your results, what factors were not in your control...), and sharing your results.

Park Connections

Salamanders are an especially abundant and diverse group of animals within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the salamanders in the Smokies breathe through their skin which makes them sensitive to changes in the environment from threats like acid deposition. Since salamanders are cold-blooded, they may also be impacted by rapidly changing weather conditions in the park, especially in the winter and early spring. This lesson plan connects the student to these salamanders and readies them for their upcoming field trip to the park.

Additional Resources

View a video about Hellbenders, the largest salamander in the Smokies

"Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies" available at

Salamander Monitoring database


All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: also called the ATBI. A research project in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to inventory every life form in the park. It is estimated that we currently know only 18,000 of an estimated 100,000 species.

Baseline Information: information about how things are now, at this point in time, so we will know if there is a change the next time we look at it.

Biodiversity: the variety, distribution and abundance of life forms and ecological processes in an ecosystem; includes the ways in which different life forms interact.

Biological Inventory: a technique used by scientists to study the various life forms in a given area. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, inventories are done in study plots.

Biological Monitoring: a technique used by scientists to check the condition of a particular species or ecosystem over time.

Canopy: the top layer of the forest, the treetops.

Density: the number of individuals of a given species within a certain area.

Dichotomous Key: an identification method that narrows down a species in question using a series of pairs of choices.

Ecosystem: a system formed by the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their environment.

Hypothesis: a proposition based on assumptions that can be evaluated scientifically.

Vertebrate: an animal that has a backbone.

Taxonomy: the classification of plants and animals according to their natural relationships.

Stewardship: Our responsibility to care for our natural resources - land, air, wildlife and water - sustainably, so future generations can enjoy them.


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Last updated: October 7, 2015