Six Seattle Salamanders

While almost everyone is familiar with lizards, many are not familiar with the amphibians that are roughly the same shape as a lizard, with skin like a frog. These are the salamanders.

Why are they not more familiar to us?  Salamanders are not generally active above ground during daytime where people can easily see them.  They can be seen during the day if you know where to look, but not very many people know where to look. I know where to look, and am leading walks to show them to you on Saturday, February 11th (2017) and another walk on Saturday, February 18th 2017 , when (after about February 15th) a new batch of eggs should be in the pond.  I am also available to lead such walks for groups (or individuals) on request.

by brian gratwicke via Flickr Creative Commons

Ensatina by brian gratwicke via Flickr Creative Commons

Like amphibians around the world, salamander populations have been in decline in Seattle.  These incredible creatures are extra sensitive to pollutants, diseases and habitat degradation and fragmentation.  While there are relatively few salamanders left in Seattle and the ones left reside in just a few remaining spots, six species may still make Seattle their home.  They are the Ensatina, the Western Red-backed Salamander, the Northwestern Salamander, the Long-toed Salamander, the Rough-skinned Newt and possibly the Pacific Giant Salamander

The biggest key to finding most salamanders is to look in their homes, in appropriate habitat, but before I tell people how to peer into their homes, I need to be sure that everyone knows that we need to do so with minimal disturbance to both the salamanders and the other creatures that live with them.  Logs, rocks, boards, bark, and other objects that they can hide under are equivalent to the roofs of their homes.  Under them they can both stay hidden and keep their skin moist.  If we lift an object to see if anyone is home, we need to do so in a way that we can move it back exactly as it was, then when we are done snooping in their homes, we slowly and carefully move their roofs back exactly the way they were, so that you can’t tell they have been moved and so you don’t crush any of the residents.  If I do pick up a salamander, I often return its “roof” to its original position, then place the salamander down outside the edge of the “roof” and touch its tail to scare the salamander back safely under its “roof”.  This way I minimize the chance of crushing the salamander when I put the log, rock, board or other object back.  We never remove the roof of a salamander’s home then leave it “in the middle of the street”.

Also note, salamanders are not appropriate for pets.  As kids, my brother and I didn’t understand this.  We would catch them, put them in terrariums and try to keep them as pets.  They all died before their time, and worse than that, they all died without replacing themselves with offspring in their original habitat.  We therefore could have been responsible for a bit of a decline or loss of some salamander populations in their ever-shrinking, and increasingly degraded, fragmented and fragile habitats.  Please don’t capture these animals that I teach you about and take them out of their natural homes, preventing them from reproducing there.  I would hope instead that you would become among those stewarding their embattled habitats and populations! Thank you! And now, about the six salamanders of Seattle…


Ensatina by Derek Curry via Flickr Creative Commons

The Ensatina – Ensatina eschscholtzii may be the most widespread, but not necessarily the most abundant.  I would also say that it is probably the cutest, with its most notable bug-eyed look!   They are thicker than Western Red-backed Salamanders and grow up to 4 ¼ inches and vary from orangish to brown to tan with no stripe down the back and have a constriction at the base of the tail.  They can be found under logs, bark and various debris, but in our civilization altered communities, they seem to be especially inclined to use piles of plywood on a forest edge.  In wilder spots, I have noted them hiding among piles of bark at the bottom of large, old dead trees, where the bark has fallen off of the standing tree. While most of our wildlife does best in larger connected pieces of wilder habitat, I have found Ensatinas in relatively small patches of wooded areas, seeming to prefer the edges and openings.  I don’t see them in groups, but see one here and one there, which partly accounts for it being possibly the most widespread, but maybe not the most abundant.  The Ensatina is one of the lungless salamanders or “Plethodons” in the family Plethodontidae. These salamanders have no lungs, but breath through their skin, and they do not breed in ponds, but lay their eggs in some moist, hidden spot.

Western Red-backed Salamander

photo be The Wandering HerpetologistThe Western Red-backed Salamander – Plethodon vehiculum is relatively slim salamander that is blackish with a stripe down the back that is typically a darker brick red, but varies to almost gold and can grow up to 4 1/8  inches.  It might possibly be more numerous in Seattle than the Ensatina.  It is more gregarious, but found in fewer places.  If there is appropriate reasonably natural, wooded habitat with a sufficient amount of fallen log hiding places, you are more likely, than with the Ensatina, to see more than one under a log, and a number of them in one relatively small area.  Like so many of our indigenous fauna and flora species, these animals have limited ability to disperse and re-colonize a patch of habitat that they have been wiped out of.  This means that, even though they may be adapted to life in a patch of urban forest, once they have disappeared from that patch, they are unlikely to be able to re-colonize it themselves.  This is one reason there are fewer colonies than there is seemingly appropriate habitat.  Along with the Enastina, the Red-backed Salamander, Plethodon vehiculum, is our other member of the family Plethodontidae, the “Plethodons” or lungless salamanders and also does not breed in ponds, but also lays its eggs in moist places, generally hidden under the surface of the ground.

Long-toed Salamander

The Long-toed Salamander – Ambystoma macrodactylum adults are thicker than the Red-backed Salamander and are a dark color with an irregular, often broken, yellow stripe down the back. They can grow to 6 ¼ inches.  It may be a bit more widespread than the next species, its cousin the Northwestern Salamander – Ambystoma gracile, as its habitat needs are possibly a bit less narrow.  They are both pond breeders, but the Long-toed Salamander generally loses its gills in its first year and only requires a seasonal pond, that may have no standing water by the end of the dry season.  Amphibians that can breed in these seasonal or “vernal” pools, have an advantage, in that many of the fish and other predators, that need permanent ponds, can’t survive in them.  One of those potential predators is the Northwestern Salamander.  Long-toed Salamanders occur in both woodlands and scrubby areas.  They are less dependent on intact woodlands than the next species, the Northwestern Salamander.  Both species are in the genus Ambystoma the so-called “Mole Salamanders”, that generally spend most of their time underground, some of them apparently utilizing mole tunnel highways.  (I’ve seen at least one Northwestern Salamander with its nose poking out of a mole tunnel, under a log.)

Northwestern Salamander

by Natalie McNear via Flickr Creative Commons

Northwestern Salamander by Natalie McNear via Flickr Creative Commons

The Northwestern Salamander – Ambystoma gracile adults are thick salamanders with evenly colored blackish brown skin, growing up to 7 ¼ inches. This species has raised oval “parotoid” poison glands behind the eyes, not harmful to touch, but you could get sick if you ate one, so don’t do it!  They can be abundant if they have an appropriate breeding pond and a large enough and suitable quality, connected area, of forest habitat.  I doubt there are many remaining wooded areas in Seattle that have both the breeding pond, and the sufficiently large patch of good enough forest habitat connected to it, as well as a population of Northwestern Salamanders that had never been wiped out.  Camp Long’s “Pollywog Pond” in West Seattle still has a robust population of them, filling with egg masses at breeding time (that is around Valentine’s night when romantic couples give and take “spermatophore” sperm packets after a ritual dance).

These salamanders are the dominant predators in Camp Long’s Pollywog Pond. Unlike Frogs that start their lives as tadpoles eating vegetation or dead stuff, salamanders are carnivores from the time the larva hatches from an egg to the time they die as adults.  Smaller amphibian larvae can be expected to be eaten by the Northwestern Salamanders in the pond, as well as about any smaller creature that moves, from dragonfly nymphs to back-swimmers.  In their pond homes, both larvae and adults are mostly active at night.

While maybe half, or more, of the Northwestern Salamanders lose their gills in their second year and become terrestrial, I’d estimate that almost half keep their gills and remain in the pond all of their lives.  It is hard to know what determines whether they will keep or lose their gills, but one year, in late summer, when the water level was low, we saw 2 substantial sized salamanders walking away from the pond in the middle of the day, and I suspect low water levels induced them to lose their gills later in life to become terrestrial.  I can’t imagine they can grow gills after losing them.

Rough-skinned Newt

1150809. Rough-skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa) Siskiyou National ...The Rough-skinned Newt – Taricha granulosa – adults are of medium thickness and have a granular, dry skin that is dark, reddish brown above and bright orangish yellow below.  They grow up to 7 7/8 inches.  They may still breed in one breeding pond in Seattle, but they haven’t been seen at Camp Long in maybe 20 years or so.  Its bright orangish yellow belly is a warning color.  DON’T EAT Rough-skinned Newts!  Doing so could kill you!  They have the same deadly toxin as puffer fish.  Also don’t feed them to your dog!  They are still frequent in wilder parts of western Washington.

Pacific Giant Salamander

Dicamptodon tenebrosus – is our largest salamander and can grow to 13 inches. (another photo) Adults are thick and dark brown, with a gold mottled pattern on terrestrial individuals.  This species might still live in one or more Seattle streams.  They prefer colder streams that they lay their eggs in and a good percentage of adults keep their gills and never leave their stream, while some lose their gills and then move into the forest. Years ago I got an unconfirmed report of one of these salamanders in one Seattle creek, but I have never turned over many rocks in Seattle creeks to see if I could find one.  They are common in the cold creeks in the mountains of western Washington.  Once, on a hike, when an older naturalist friend mentioned that he had always wanted to see a Pacific Giant Salamander, but never had, I turned over the first rock in the creek we were crossing on rock stepping stones and caught one to show him!

I hope you have enjoyed learning about our Six Seattle salamanders, and I hope you will join me on one of my nature walks soon!

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21 Responses to Six Seattle Salamanders

  1. Suzanne Sawyer says:

    I live in Sandpoint, Idaho and found what I believe to be a Northwestern Salamander in my Orchid greenhouse last night (Nov. 12, 2017). The greenhouse is quite moist and humid due to my collection of 200+ orchids. I left the salamander in the greenhouse as we have snow on the ground right now and freezing temps most nights. The greenhouse does have some potential food items, but I worry that the salamander will not have enough to eat. When I move plants around I find small centipedes, pill bugs, small snails, slugs and of course some spiders. Will this be enough food for the salamader to survive?

    • Stewart says:


      Your greenhouse may have enough food, but I can’t be sure. It is my general policy to make a minimum of changes for a wild animal. I would leave it in the greenhouse, and hope for the best. This doesn’t sound like a good time to move it into the snowy landscape for its own benefit. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily resist moving some of the wild bugs around, if I thought that the salamander was likely to eat them. I can’t say that I quite know which ones it does, or doesn’t eat, but if you end up getting some evidence, I’d be happy to get a report. I believe they are generally most active at night. There may be some kind of lighting that it doesn’t see, such as possibly a red light, if you want to see if you can observe any activity at night.


      • Suzanne Sawyer says:

        I did find the salamander at about 8 PM. I do get slugs in the greenhouse and they eat the flower spikes off of my orchids, which makes me really mad, so I tend to go into the greenhouse at night on “slug patrol” and pick off any slugs that are visible. That is when I spotted my salamander – at first I thought it was a very big slug. I did just leave it in the heated greenhouse, as I was afraid it would not survive if I put it outdoors on a snowy November night. If I spot it again in the spring, I will move it outdoors.
        Thanks Stewart

  2. Jack Jensen says:


    I live in the Grand Coulee area and when I was coming home from work a couple of days ago I saw a whole bunch of what I think were Northwestern Salamanders crossing the dirt road. There were dozens of them and maybe a hundred or so all crossing the road away from a pond that had been there all summer (very unusual for our area since it is very dry over the summer. After reading up some on these creatures it seems like we are too far east to have them here but it sure looked like that is what they were from the pics on line. Just thought you might be interested in someone seeing so many in one place since they seem to be somewhat rare in the Northwest.

    Have a great day!


    • Stewart says:

      Seeing so many salamanders at one time crossing a road in indeed a notable sighting! Decades ago, in at least Vermont, I had seen mass exoduses of baby toad “toadlets” crossing roads, when, and where, they were common, leaving their natal ponds, where they hatched from their eggs and grew up as tadpoles, and then lost their tails, but I have never seen large numbers of any salamanders travelling away from the ponds they grew up as “larvae” in. Checking the maps on the Burke Museum site, I see that Norwestern Salamanders – Ambystoma gracile are not recorded by the Burke Museum for the Grand Coulee area of eastern Washington, but I can’t say your sighting doesn’t show that their map needs a revision. That said, their cousins the Long-toed Salamanders – Ambystoma macrodactylum are recorded in your area. The markings of the young ones, when they leave their natal ponds, aren’t as distinctive as those of the adults, so they might be difficult to distinguish. Tiger Salamanders – Ambystoma tigrinum also occur in your area, and I don’t know how well their mottled markings are developed at the time the ones that do so leave their natal ponds. As you may have learned, some of these “Mole Salamanders” (genus Ambystoma) never lose their gills and never leave the water they hatched from eggs in, and are called “neotenes”. The fact that that pond still had water at the end of the summer is a good reason that that pond would be used as a breeding pond. I imagine that the start of the fall rains makes this a good time for the salamanders to safely leave the pond after losing their gills (not losing their tails as the toads do) with enough moisture to travel and not get too dry.


  3. Marguerite says:

    Hello. I really need some help. Tonight I came home to find a salamander in my garage just chillin. I called my son and we tried to encourage him to go back outside but he just started deeper in the garage.
    Son thought he/she was sick and came inside. Going back out, Houdini disappeared.
    I don’t want it dying without water and have nowhere to figure it went. We have a horribly messy garage. What to do?

    • Stewart says:

      First, you mentioned that your salamander was “chillin'”. As far as I can tell, salamanders don’t experience cold, but they may get slower in colder weather. Also, I don’t know if there is any problem for the salamander to be in your garage, but if you think it could be in danger of a car or human running over it, or it running into some dangerous substance there, that may be a good reason to move it outside. They also don’t drink water, but get it from their food. That said, they do need moist places to hide during the day. I expect you have one of our two “mole” salamanders, either the Northwestern Salamander or the Long-toed Salamander I describe above. They are moving to and from their breeding ponds now. They travel in mole tunnels, and if you find a mole hole in a wooded area by your house, that might be a good place to put it. You could also find a log in the woods, that isn’t too tightly affixed to a clay soil, but has some somewhat airy spots under it. Then put the log that you looked under, just as it was before you looked under it, and nudge the salamander to crawl under the log. (Nudging it to crawl under the log reduces any risk of pinning or crushing it by putting the salamander by turning the log back over the salamander.)

  4. Stewart says:

    Great news on both the Ensatina front and the habitat improvement front!: On the January 14th salamander search I led at Camp Long, for the first time that I can remember in 16 years there were 2 Ensatinas in a spot that I often remember seeing only one! I expect the two were meeting their mates! I hope to see a female there with her eggs on my next walk there! Also the spot that I found them was a small moss covered slab of bark that I had placed in that spot 16 years ago, expecting it would make a great salamander shelter, and it did!

    Also 20 years ago, I noticed that the Parks Department would bring their trucks in to haul out the piles of dead blackberries and other weeds, and I suggested that they just leave them there, that they could provide airy platforms to throw more blackberries and other weeds, where they could dry and die before they would again root and shoot, as they might if they touched moist soil. That it was organic material, and that it would eventually rot, contributing to the richness of the soil, and they would provide shelter for animals that would hide in, and under them. Now if you walk through a wooded Seattle park, you can see these piles scattered throughout the parks. Some people think they look messy. I like to tell people that we should always ask what the wildlife thinks before we pass judgement on such messes. Then today, for the first time in these 20 years, while I was moving the half rotted material from one of these old piles to use as mulch to smother some weeds, I found an Ensatina salamander in the pile! It was also the first Ensatina I had seen at Lincoln Park in years, after I was starting to think there were no more salamanders still in the small bit of habitat there, so they are still there!

  5. Broken Horn says:

    So my girlfriend caught a small Northwestern salamander the other day and decided to keep it, I’ve already gave her some adivices from many reliable sources but I think we need more help

    • Stewart says:

      I would tell your girlfriend that if she wants there to continue to be Pacific Northwest Salamanders in the Pacific Northwest, it will help for every one of these salamanders to have every chance to breed in the wild as possible. Keeping a salamander as a pet means that it won’t be able to contribute to the coming generations of salamanders, and will most likely live a shorter life in her terrarium.

  6. Julie carlson says:

    Hello Stewart,

    I have both ensatinas and long toed salamanders in my wildlife garden in Edmonds. If anyone is interested, I have found that collecting rotting wood, digging a 1ft deep hole, and filling with wood, soil and leaves, seems to be a prime spot to find these salamanders again. Perhaps it mimics a decaying stump or tree?

    I have a new pond as well that I can’t determine if I want to keep full or allow to dry out somewhat in summer. I want dragonflies as well, and have read that they like a fairly consistent water level. I also want what’s best for the wildlife here. Are dragonflies a threat to salamanders?

    • Stewart says:

      Our 3 pond breeding salamanders, the Northwestern Salamander, the Long-toed Salamander, and the Rough Skinned Newt are predatory and I expect they eat whatever they can catch that is smaller than them, including smaller dragonfly larvae. As you may know, the Ensatinas (and the Western Red-backeds) never go in a pond. At the same time the dragonfly larvae eat anything smaller than them, including smaller salamanders. I don’t know about keeping a consistent water level. For some dragonflies, as well as for some salamanders letting a pond completely dry out after all of their species has emerged can prevent species that need a pond with water year-round from establishing. Fish are often the worst thing for both dragonflies and salamanders, but they are not likely to establish on their own in your artificial pond. I don’t know if there is much danger of letting a pond water level get relatively low, without drying, but I expect that a lower pond level will limit the number of both dragonflies and salamanders, and potentially reduce those numbers. I tend to prefer natural patterns, so I tend to favor letting a pond lower in the dry season to some degree, but I can’t really say how much this benefits or harms which species, it just seems like a more natural pattern might favor what was here before the people who started building ponds.

      And yes! Those semi-natural wood piles are very popular with both Ensatinas and Western Red-backed Salamanders. Though it might be equally good to spread out logs or flat wood, such as plywood or other boards (untreated), to make stepping stones between habitat for them.

      If I could split all of the logs (ones not too rotten to split) that they were to use, I probably would, making two shelters out of one and then having a better flat side to put down. The flat side down creates more shelter surface area and tends to have small air spaces that may be easier for them to crawl into. The side with the bark staying up is better for mosses to grow on and allows the log to both look more natural, support the moss, then support plants that will grow in moss on a log, as a “nurse log”.

  7. Lu says:

    I live in Snoqualmie and have a three tiered bubbling rock in our backyard that backs up to a rock wall made of boulders. That then backs up to a greenspace. Our bubbler has a shallow pond base that now has many young salamanders swimming in the bottom. They range in size from what looks like a 1/2 inch to about 1.5 inches. They all have the gills and legs and are a darkish brown color. Will they leave my bubbler any time soon? I need to have the bubbler worked on and don’t want to crush them.

    • Stewart says:

      Most of our pond breeding salamanders, that is the Long-toed Salamander, the Northwestern Salamander, and the Rough-skinned Newt, absorb their gills and leave water before the first dry season would dry their ponds. At Camp Long, the pond is kept relatively full through the dry season, and half of at least the Northwestern Salamanders leave before the end of the first dry season, but the other half keep their gills and stay as gilled adults. It is my suspicion that keeping the pond with higher water is a key to why these salamanders aren’t triggered to absorb their gills before the first dry season might dry their pond. I’ve long wondered about whether the adults with gills can absorb their gills in a later season than the first, and as I think about it, I am betting that any season that a pond’s water level starts to come down that this would trigger gilled adults to absorb their gills and become terrestrial also. I would recommend just letting pond dry out naturally so the water level become lower until their is no more by the end of the summer, and I will bet that all of the salamanders would absorb their gills and leave the pond. Do this and tell me what happens. I will also bet the more crowded the pond is with salamanders the earlier more of them will lose gills and leave the pond.

      With the incredible heat and dry that we are now experiencing, I expect that letting the pond dry will take more than adding no water.

  8. Jamie Murray says:

    I wish I could upload the photo of the salamander that I found in my house thus morning. I haven’t seen one in years, until this morning.

    • Stewart says:

      Great to hear you saw one! If you describe it and what kind of habitat you live near and roughly where you are, I might be able to tell you what kind you saw.

    • Niv says:

      me too..found what looks like a 5-6″ long Northwestern salamander in the garden today , when moving some pots, with river rocks that had been overturned for a while…Bothell

      • Stewart says:

        Great to hear you found it! If you want a confirmation of the species identification send me a photo or give me a further description.

  9. LuLu says:

    I have never seen a salamander in a garden before! I moved a wind barrel that had been sitting on the dirt near my downspout for about 2 weeks waiting to be converted to a rain barrel. I moved it from there to put down a base for it yesterday (3/25/15), and lo! and behold! A creature! I ran for my camera…took a shot which of course is blurry from trying to do it too fast. It was brownish, but with orange legs…a little more than 4″ long. I moved it under a bush so that my cat wouldn’t find it, because I needed to dig there to make a level spot for my barrel’s base. I am assuming that it is an Ensatina by the description, but mine has the orange legs. I guess I can’t post my blurry picture here.

  10. Stewart says:

    Had a great night with the UW students this evening! All four salamander species, including the one that plays hardest to get the Long-toed Salamander – Ambystoma macrodactylum. The owls serenaded us with calls back and forth to eachother, including some screams that aren’t as common as the hoots. We found one gravid (full of eggs) female Northwestern Salamander – Ambystoma gracile, which tried to escape through a mole tunnel, but failed, that hadn’t made it to the pond yet for it’s Valentine’s night scheduled egg laying. All of the salamanders in the pond were males, being sure to be there before the first female arrived, in hopes that that female will dance with him and pick up his spermatophore – sperm packet to fertilize her eggs to be laid the following night.
    Don’t miss the Salamander Love night programs! See the links on the right side of the home page below my photo and bio.

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