New species of salamander named after WCU professor

The female Urspelerpes brucei is about the size of a dime. (Photo courtesy Bill Peterman)

The female Urspelerpes brucei is about the size of a dime. (Photo courtesy Bill Peterman)

A newly discovered salamander has been named in honor of Richard Bruce, professor emeritus of biology at Western Carolina University.

“It is indeed an honor to have the new species of salamander, Urspelerpes brucei, named for me,” said Bruce, who came to WCU in 1963 and continues to research and promote preservation of Appalachian amphibians.

A group of researchers began documenting Urspelerpes brucei, a patch-nosed salamander native to Appalachia that can grow to 2 inches in length, in 2007 near Toccoa, Ga. Their findings, which were published recently in the Journal of Zoology, represent the first new genus of four-footed creatures discovered in the United States in 50 years.

The creature is named for Bruce to honor his foundational work on stream salamander ecology in the region and on the evolution of miniaturization in salamanders, said John Maerz, assistant wildlife professor at the University of Georgia and part of the research team. Maerz worked with Carlos Camp, professor at Piedmont College; Joe Milanovich, a University of Georgia graduate student; Bill Peterman, a University of Missouri graduate student; Trip Lamb, professor at East Carolina University; and David Wake, professor at the University of California Berkeley.

Jim Costa, WCU professor of biology, said Bruce’s research and dedication “helped put Cullowhee on the scientific map.” Around the WCU area, he became known as the “Salamander King” because of his in-depth study of Appalachia’s diverse salamander populations, said Costa.

In 1996 while conducting research with the U.S. Forest Service, Bruce said that Appalachia was “one of the most biologically diverse regions in the temperate zone,” and that “only in the tropics can a greater variety of plants and animals be found.”

He previously has served as executive director of Highlands Biological Station, a year-round research center dedicated to the study of regional plant and animal life, and was honored in 2000 with the H.F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professorship.

After he retired in 2002, he continued to conduct research on the life histories and ecology of amphibians and explore tropical biology. An article by Bruce about miniaturization in salamanders will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Copeia. He also is preparing articles for publication about growth in salamanders and predation by caimans on electric eels in Venezuela.