Did you hear the one about the herpetologist who walked into a bar?
This isn’t a joke, actually. But it is the beginning of a pretty fun story about endangered salamanders, locally made booze, and two guys named Joe.
Once upon a time (or, say, 2016), Joe Pilleteri, a former merchant marine, wanted to start a brewery in Homewood, Alabama. Pilleteri knew the brewery’s name would be important for brand recognition, and he wanted something that reflected the local nature of his endeavor. He’d always liked that a brewery up in Huntsville adopted the name Yellowhammer, after the state bird. So he began looking up Alabama’s other iconic wildlife.
Black bear? Too common. Monarch butterfly? Too dainty. Brown shrimp? Too . . . shrimpy.
Then he found it: Alabama’s state amphibian, the Red Hills salamander. Now that sounded like a local brew house. So Pilleteri slapped a funky-looking salamander on his website and the Red Hills Brewery was born.
A few months later, Joe Jenkins, a graduate student at Auburn University, was planning a trip to Homewood to meet up with an old friend. This second Joe considers himself a budding naturalist and has a special place in his heart for amphibians and reptiles. But he’s also a student of brewing, with a particular penchant for turning honey and fruit into mead. As such, Jenkins makes it a point to visit breweries around the state to sample their wares. When he heard about a new brewery that featured a salamander prominently on the company’s website, he simply had to check it out.
“We arrived an hour or so before closing time,” says Jenkins, “and struck up a conversation with Joe [Pilleteri] that quickly turned into a tour of the brew area.” The next thing he knew, Jenkins says, it was an hour past closing time and the employees were turning out the lights on them. They’d talked about everything from military service to brewing techniques to salamander conservation. Before he left that night, Jenkins suggested that, given the brewery’s mascot, they should partner in some sort of conservation project.
You see, the Red Hills salamander, which can grow to a whopping 11 inches in length, isn’t just the state amphibian. It’s the only terrestrial vertebrate whose entire range falls within Alabama. Every single one of them crawls over just 60,000 acres of the Red Hills region in the southeast part of the state. And paper companies own about 60 percent of that habitat. As creatures without lungs—seriously!—Red Hills salamanders acquire oxygen through their skin, which is kept moist by the soil around them. They don’t do so well without a thick canopy of trees over their head to keep the sun out, and it’s obviously tough to make paper without felling a few trees. Even nearby logging can disrupt the canopy and the soil enough to make these amphibians shrivel up in their burrows, which is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Red Hills salamander as threatened back in 1977.Despite their status as the state amphibian, Red Hills salamanders are little known among Alabamans. Part of this is probably due to their limited distribution, but it also doesn’t help that the critters spend most of their lives belowground.
Unfortunately, these salamanders live in “the epicenter for extinctions in the United States,” according to Jenkins. “Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but we are also in the throes of an extinction crisis. Roughly half of the extinctions in the continental United States have occurred in the Mobile River Basin.” Alabama also currently ranks 49th in environmental spending.
For all of these reasons, Jenkins thought the salamanders might be able to use a little good PR through the new brewery. As he shared his idea over a few pints, Pilleteri seemed interested, but Jenkins couldn’t tell if he was just being polite. So Jenkins came back a few weeks later armed with a bottle of mead he’d brewed up special, along with some informational handouts about Auburn University’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program.
“The Alabama Natural Heritage Program is responsible for surveying and monitoring rare species in the state, yet there is limited dedicated funding to help keep the program running,” says David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and Jenkins’s adviser at Auburn University.
Back at the bar, Jenkins says, he didn’t have to do any convincing. “I just popped open a bottle of mead and let it work its magic.” The result: Later this year, the two Joes hope to create a braggot, which is a mixture of mead and beer, the profits of which will go toward the Alabama Natural Heritage Program and its work saving Red Hills salamanders.
For the moment, Pilleteri is working on adding information about the salamanders to his website and maybe even getting a terrarium for the brewery bar, which he describes as being kid-friendly. “Salamanders aren’t something I claim to know a lot about, but I’m happy to raise awareness because I have the platform. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m an Auburn fan.”
He’s also happy that his mascot has turned out be quite the conversation starter. “It’s been cool. People ask me where the name comes from, and everyone says, ‘What’s with the gecko?’” Pilleteri laughs. “Because every lizard is a gecko now thanks to Geico.”
Salamanders, of course, are no more lizards than they are geckos, but let’s give Pilleteri credit for enthusiasm. And while we’re fact-checking, Pilleteri admits that the salamander on his website, which has bright-red bands all over it, is not actually a Red Hills salamander, which tends to be more of a dark purple.
But the important thing is that the two Joes are allowing their passions to ferment into action. “The first step to fixing this problem is educating people about what we have and what we stand to lose,” says Jenkins. “Sharing a beer with folks is a great way to open the door to constructive conversation.”
And in honor of that, I’ll leave you with a herpetology joke you can use if you ever make it down to the Red Hills Brewery:
A man walks into a bar with a salamander on his shoulder. “What’s that?” asks the bartender.
“Oh, this?” says the man. “This here’s Tiny.”
“Why’d you name him Tiny?” asks the bartender.
“Isn’t it obvious?” says the man. “He’s my newt.”
(Hey, I didn’t say it was a good herpetology joke.)