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 on two upcoming outings at Camp Long in Seattle, I’d be happy to share these creatures with you. Our next salamander nature walk is February 18 (for families).
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…
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! (See it here). 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
The 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.
The Long-toed Salamander – Ambystoma macrodactylum adults (photo here) 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.)
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.
The Rough-skinned Newt – Taricha granulosa – (click for photo here) – 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
The Pacific Giant Salamander – Dicamptodon tenebrosus - (click on photo here) 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. (photo of aquatic form) 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!