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  • Single Centers of Creation?

    Nancy Lowe, Independent Artist

    30 November 2009

    Nancy Lowe approaches the idea of "single centers of creation" through salamander diversity in the Southern Appalachian mountains.


    Detail from Nancy Lowe, Source, Species Icons exhibit, Schatten Gallery, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009.
    Detail from Nancy Lowe, Source, Species Icons exhibit, Schatten Gallery, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009.
    In this sampling from ORIGIN, a collaborative exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, artist Nancy Lowe approaches the idea of "single centers of creation" through the example of salamander diversity in the Southern Appalachian mountains.

    Excerpt from Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859:
    Excerpt from Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859.
    Artist's Statement:

    It has been thought that, because of the tremendous diversity of lungless salamanders (Plethodontids) in the Southern Appalachians and because of the age of this mountain range, these salamanders may have originated in our veritable backyard. Recent phylogenetic research has called into question this biogeographical idea; perhaps it is not as simple and straightforward as we thought. Species originate from one place, they disperse, migrate, branch into new species, some die off . . . but then climates change, continents shift, and some groups re-evolve ancient characters, or several distantly related groups evolve similar traits (called convergent evolution), confusing the evolutionary biologists who are trying to sleuth these mysteries. We only have a few twigs from which to guess at the shape of the whole tree.

    Nevertheless, I find this idea of salamander origins in the Appalachians a powerful metaphor for origins of life. There are points of origin. Each branching on the tree is a point of origin and the beginning of a new line in the story. If we could trace all our origins all the way back, we would find that we salamanders, we hominids, we birds, we slime molds and mosses all came from one placeā€”out of the water and out of the earth. The habitat of most salamanders is the moist earth, the kind of dark place that is recycled from death, yet lush with life. For me an image that bores into the center of the earth, to our origins, is equally sacred as one that opens up into heaven. Thus I have strived to honor this origin story with an earthy mandala.

    Species of Plethodontid Salamanders of the Southern Appalachians:
    Latin Name Common Name
    Desmognathus ochrophaeus Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander
    Desmognathus monticola monticola Appalachian Seal Salamander
    Plethodon chlorobryonis Atlantic Coastal Slimy Salamander
    Gyrinophilus gulolineatus Berry Cave Salamander
    Gyrinophilus palleucus necturoides Big Mouth Cave Salamander
    Desmognathus welteri Black Mountain Salamander
    Desmognathus quadramaculatus Black-bellied Salamander
    Pseudotriton ruber schencki Black-chinned Red Salamander
    Desmognathus orestes Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander
    Pseudotriton ruber nitidus Blue Ridge Red Salamander
    Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi* Blue Ridge Spring Salamander
    Eurycea wilderae* Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander
    Eurycea cf. quadridigitata* "Carolina Dwarf Sal."
    Desmognathus carolinensis Carolina Mountain Dusky Salamander
    Gyrinophilus porphyriticus dunni* Carolina Spring Salamander
    Eurycea lucifuga Cave Salamander
    Plethodon chattahoochee Chattahoochee Slimy Salamander
    Plethodon longicrus* Crevice Salamander [SC]
    Plethodon kentucki Cumberland Plateau Salamander
    Eurycea quadridigitata* Dwarf Salamander [SC]
    Pseudotriton montanus montanus Eastern Mud Salamander
    Plethodon cinereus Eastern Red-backed Salamander
    Hemidactylium scutatum Four-toed Salamander [SC]
    Aneides aeneus Green Salamander [E]
    Desmognathus imitator Imitator Salamander
    Plethodon jordani Jordan's Salamander
    Eurycea junaluska Junaluska Salamander [T]
    Gyrinophilus porphyriticus duryi Kentucky Spring Salamander
    Eurycea l. longicauda Long-tailed Salamander [SC]
    Stereochilus marginatus Many-lined Salamander
    Pseudotriton montanus diastictus Midland Mud Salamander
    Plethodon mississippi Mississippi Slimy Salamander
    Pseudotriton montanus Mud Salamander
    Desmognathus fuscus* Northern Dusky Salamander
    Pseudotriton ruber ruber Northern Red Salamander
    Plethodon glutinosus Northern Slimy Salamander
    Gyrinophilus porphyriticus porphyriticus Northern Spring Salamander
    Plethodon dorsalis Northern Zigzag Salamander
    Desmognathus ocoee Ocoee Salamander
    Gyrinophilus palleucus palleucus Pale Salamander
    Desmognathus wrighti Pigmy Salamander
    Pseudotriton ruber* Red Salamander
    Plethodon jordani Red-cheeked Salamander
    Plethodon shermani Red-legged Salamander
    Eurycea "Sandhills Eurycea"
    Desmognathus santeetlah Santeetlah Dusky Salamander
    Desmognathus monticola Seal Salamander
    Desmognathus aeneus Seepage Salamander
    Desmognathus marmoratus Shovel-nosed Salamander
    Plethodon teyahalee Southern Appalachian Salamander
    Desmognathus auriculatus* Southern Dusky Salamander
    Plethodon metcalfi Southern Gray-cheeked Salamander
    Plethodon richmondi Southern Ravine Salamander
    Pseudotriton ruber vioscai Southern Red Salamander
    Plethodon serratus Southern Red-backed Salamander
    Eurycea cirrigera* Southern Two-lined Salamander
    Plethodon ventralis (formerly dorsalis) Southern Zigzag Salamander[SC]
    Plethodon welleri ventromaculatus Spotbelly Salamander [SC]
    Desmognathus conanti Spotted Dusky Salamander
    Gyrinophilus porphyriticus Spring Salamander
    Plethodon aureolus Tellico Salamander
    Gyrinophilus palleucus Tennessee Cave Salamander
    Eurycea guttolineata Three-lined Salamander
    Plethodon wehrlei Wehrle's Salamander [T]
    Plethodon welleri Weller's Salamander [SC]
    Plethodon cylindraceus White-spotted Slimy Salamander
    Plethodon yonahlossee* Yonahlossee Salamander
    Plethodontidae: Lungless Salamanders, Tree of Life web project.
    This essay is adapted from Nancy Lowe's exhibit Species Icons, Schatten Gallery, Emory University, 2009. 

    About the Author:

    Nancy Lowe is a naturalist artist and scientific illustrator based in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 1986 and a post baccalaureate honors in biology from Georgia State University between 1992 and 1994. Currently she teaches nature journaling and scientific artistry at schools, universities, and museum workshops throughout Georgia.

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    Recommended Resources:

    Discover Life

    Proceedings of the Appalachian Salamanders Workshop, May 30-31, 2008. Conservation and Research Center, Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, Front Royal, Virginia.

    Salamanders of Alabama

    Salamanders of Arkansas 

    Salamanders of Kentucky

    Salamanders of North Carolina 

    Salamanders of South Carolina and Georgia 

    Salamanders of Tennessee 

    Salamanders of Virginia

    Salamanders of West Virginia

    Welsh, Hartwell H., Jr. and Sam A. Droege, "A case for using plethodontid salamanders for monitoring biodiversity and ecosystem integrity of North American forests," Conservation Biology 2001: 15(3):558-569. 

    Wilson, E.O. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.