Using Environmental DNA and Citizen Science to Monitor Salamanders in Great Smoky Mountains National Park


This is a page for real-time updates about our citizen science projects in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The goals of these projects are to evaluate the potential of environmental DNA surveys for 1) characterizing plethodontid salamander communities along an elevational gradient; and 2) detecting variation in life history phenology in plethodontid salamanders.


Citizen scientists, check back often for new results!

August 11, 2016

Hello Citizen Scientists! We finally have sequence data back from our Pigpen Branch eDNA sampling over the last year. We've processed the DNA sequences and compared them to known sequences of salamanders from the Southern Appalachians. Here's a sneak peek at what the data look like. 

Each column represents a separate sequencing reaction from a single sample, and each color represents DNA from a different species of salamander. It's a pretty fi...

May 24, 2016

Hello citizen scientists! Here's another update from the lab.

We've finally extracted eDNA from samples collected from nearly a full year of sampling at Pigpen Branch! Now, we're performing 'PCR' (polymerase chain reaction), which replicates that DNA inside a test tube. Pictured here are a little more than half the samples getting ready for PCRs. Woo! 

After these PCRs, we'll pool our samples together for sequencing on a 'next generation s...

March 3, 2016

Thanks to the hard work of our citizen scientist volunteers, we now have monthly eDNA samples collected from Pigpen Branch from Summer 2015 until now. 

We're ramping up our lab work here in Knoxville, and we'll hopefully be sending final samples to be sequenced in the next few weeks. Pictured here are some of these samples as DNA is being extracted from the filter paper. This process involves a series of chemical reactions designed to isolate DNA a...

December 4, 2015

Knoxville's WBIR recently produced a story about salamanders in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Tremont's Gar Secrist, UTK's Dr. Ben Fitzpatrick, and I made guest appearances! You can view the video here.

Back in Knoxville, we're still working hard to process eDNA samples from around Tremont. We hope to have a more substantial update soon!

November 2, 2015

Here's a brief update for all of you citizen scientists! We're still accumulating eDNA samples for analysis in the lab.

In the meantime, Tiffany, Gar, and I went to the field last week to photograph some salamanders and refine the current dichotomous key for identifying them. Here's a quick photo of a salamander belly. Can you guess which species it is? A few hints: it's a species of dusky salamander (genus Desmognathus). The belly is relative...

August 20, 2015

Hey folks! We've just received sequences from our first sampling at the Tremont streams.

Unfortunately, we encountered a few complications while amplifying the DNA (we're working on fixing these for the next batch of samples!), but here's a little teaser from a Pigpen Branch sample collected in June. The chart shows the proportion of sequences that matched each salamander species. It uses scientific names, but here are the common names associated w...

July 26, 2015

Hey folks! We've begun our eDNA surveys in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We're hoping to have frequent updates for all of our citizen science volunteers, so check back often. 

Below is a mud salamander (Pseudotriton montanus) that UTK undergraduate student Michael Ellison and I discovered while scouting out sites a few weeks ago. They're not often found within the National Park, and we're hoping to use eDNA to document some new localities.

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© 2020 by Todd W. Pierson