Did you know Virginia has more than 40 emblems that represent the state’s cultural heritage and natural resources, including the beloved northern cardinal, big-eared bat, tiger swallowtail butterfly, and nelsonite, the official rock of Virginia.
Recently, another state emblem was signed into law – the red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). The species is now Virginia’s official state salamander. The striking crimson amphibian was selected because of its beautiful coloration, widespread distribution throughout the commonwealth, and its ability to raise awareness about the conservation of a species whose reclusive habits make it difficult for many people to appreciate them.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, sponsored the bill at the urging of young conservationists affiliated with Salamander Savers, an ecological-minded 4-H group in the city whose members range in age from 8 to 18. The youth, who also received support from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Herpetological Society, and many naturalists and teachers, have been working for two years to raise awareness about salamanders.
“I am excited to introduce these bright young activists to the civic process,” Filler-Corn told WHSV.com news. “It is my hope that this is just the beginning of their engagement with government and that they will continue their advocacy for years to come.”
4-H is the youth development education program of Virginia Cooperative Extension. Through 4-H, young people are encouraged to participate in a variety of activities that emphasize 4-H’s “learning by doing” philosophy of youth development. Administered through the state’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, 4-H is the first experience many young people have with higher education.
The Salamander Savers experienced many challenges along the way. Last year, the 4-H’ers visited the capitol in Richmond more than seven times to meet with legislators. Each trip took about six hours. The students even drew pictures of the salamander on cards, delivering them to lawmakers as part of their lobbying effort.
The bill passed 96-1 in the House of Delegates and 39-1 by the Senate.
This 4-H group was founded in response to the dredge of a Fairfax lake in 2015. Three children were inspired to save the salamanders from the surrounding lake, appealing to local government officials for help. The 4-H members attended meetings, advocated in front of adults, and fought to save the lake’s vernal pools.
“When our lake was dredged, my kids asked me questions that I wasn’t able to answer. As a home-schooling mother, I was determined to try to find answers to their questions,” said Anna Kim, the 4-H club’s adult leader, and mother of Jonah Kim, 14, the club’s president.
In addition, Kim said that her son wanted to give a voice to the animals who could not speak for themselves.
“We chose the red salamander because it lives throughout Virginia,” said the younger Kim. “We thought it was easily recognizable and would be interesting to people who have never seen a salamander.”
The amphibian is a member of the Plethodontidae family, a group of lungless salamanders that breathe through their skin. Because of their unique respiration, their environment needs to be free of toxins or they will absorb the pollutants through their skin. By bringing attention to the red salamander, Salamander Savers members hope to raise awareness about the 56 species that reside in Virginia.
— Written by Amy Painter