The Nantahala River is rich in aquatic wildlife, and wildlife that lives near the river, from the Noonday Globe Snail to Rainbow Trout to Beavers. If you sit quietly near the river, or on a white water raft in the calmer stretches of the water, you’re more likely to see this diverse range of wildlife. It’s a great privilege to spot animals in their natural habitat, especially those that remain elusive. Below are some of Carolina Outfitters’ favorites that can be seen in the Nantahala River or close to the water.
Photo Credit Gary Peeples/USFWS
The Noonday Globe Snail is a species of snail that lives near the Nantahala River, and the north facing side of the river is the only place it’s known to habitat. In the late 1970s a proposal was put forth to widen highway 19 through the Nantahala Gorge, threatening the existence of the Noonday Globe Snail. However, the proposal was dropped. Though the snail is also threatened by commercial and housing developments, invasive non-native plants (such as kudzu), and the tourist industry, their numbers have remained stable.
The Nantahala river has plenty of salamanders and lizards, but they’re not the same thing. Salamanders are amphibians, whereas lizards are reptiles. An example of a salamander is the Eastern Hellbender, which can grow up to two feet long, dwarfing regular lizards. Another type of salamander is the Eastern Tiger Salamander, but this one likes sandy soil for burrowing, and pine forests away from fish, so it’s rarely seen, and it’s found a little further toward the eastern end of North Carolina.
Turn over a rock near the edge of the Nantahala River before the dam release and you’ll most likely see some species of lizard (most likely a Coal Skink) scampering away, seeking another rock to hide under. These little guys, unfortunately, are used for fisherman’s bait and are hunted for extra pocket change when sold to bait shops. They are quick and slippery to catch, but they are by far the most populous in the areas near water, including the Nantahala River.
Sit outside on a warm night and you’re sure to hear the calming sound of frogs croaking around a pond or in nearby trees. Western North Carolina is rich in an abundance of frog species, mostly backyard pond frogs. Some are on the endangered species list and some are rarely seen. Other frogs found near the Nantahala River are River Frogs (which haven’t been seen in over 20 years), American Bullfrogs, Bronze/Green Frogs, Southern Leopard Frogs, Pickeral Frogs, Carpenter Frogs, Wood Frogs, Eastern Gray Tree Frogs (a rare species), Spring Peeper, and American Toad. The American Bullfrog is the largest and the Little Grass Frog is the smallest, but those are found in the eastern part of North Carolina.
The Nantahala River Bogs hosts plenty of rare species including the Bog Turtle, which is an endangered species. The Snapping Turtle is common near western North Carolina’s freshwater streams. Painted turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, Common Musk Turtle are a few more turtles found near the Nantahala River. Turtles tend to habitat in a small area and will live there their whole life. Never relocate a turtle unless it’s in danger (most often from a highway). If you have to move a turtle, put it somewhere safe pointing in the direction it was headed. Relocating a turtle can open it up to diseases and parasites that they don’t have the immunity to fight.
The Appalachian Elktoe is a freshwater mussel that has all but disappeared from the rivers and streams of western North Carolina. They were mostly found in the Little Tennessee River of which the Nantahala River is a tributary. You might still come across one every now and then. If you played in the Little Tennessee River over 40 years ago, you might have spotted the shell of the Appalachian Elktoe as it brushed the bottom of the river in the flowing water. You might have wondered how a seashell got so far away from home not knowing you had picked up a freshwater mussel. Head down to the Little Tennessee River, after a fun white water rafting trip on the Nantahala River with Carolina Outfitters, wade out a little ways, and see if you can spot the Appalachian Elktoe. Send us a picture if you find one!
Rainbow and Brook Trout can be found in the lower Nantahala River–one of the top trout streams in the country. The difference between these two species is that the Brown Trout doesn’t have the pink to red stripe down its side like the Rainbow Trout. Rainbow Trout are only native to the Pacific Rim. and were introduced to North Carolina’s mountain streams in the late 1870s and early 1980s, stocked as a sportfish. Other types of fish to be found are Sockeye Salmon and Brook Trout.
River Otters are found all over the state of North Carolina, including the Nantahala River, though seldom seen and are rare in some rivers. They prefer to stay hidden, but can be observed sliding down snow and mud banks and playing in the water. Otters went nearly extinct in the western part of North Carolina by the 1930s due to over-trapping. Between 1990 and 1995, The NC Wildlife Resources Commission released 49 River Otters in western North Carolina to help boost their dwindling population.
Beavers are strict vegetarians and can be found in most of North Carolina’s watersheds. Beavers are another species of animal that nearly went extinct because of fur trappers in the 1800s. Restocking efforts started in the 1930s and continued in the 1950s. The Nantahala Bogs need beavers to rejuvenate the area by damming and drowning the woody growth where many endangered species reside in the boggy landscape.