Adult male during the breeding season, showing a swollen vent.
Large aquatic adult, 5,700 ft.,
Pierce county, Washington
Adult, Snohomish County, Washington
Adult, Snohomish County, Washington
King County, Washington.
A large adult with reduced gills, 5,700 ft., Pierce county, Washington, found on land at the edge of a lake. This salamander appears to be transforming from an aquatic to a terrestrial existence.
Larva in water.
Neotenic or paedomorphic adult, from near sea level in King County, Washington.
Egg mass attached to a stick that was submerged in a small pond.
Habitat, Mendocino County
Redwood forest habitat,
Habitat, breeding pond,
Del Norte County
Habitat, Humboldt County
Habitat, Humboldt County
Breeding pond, Pacific
Breeding habitat in early March, Humboldt County
More pictures of eggs, larvae, and breeding habitat - Page 2.
More pictures of this salamander and its natural habitat are available on our Northwest Herps page.
An adult Northwestern Salamander paedomorph (still has gills and lives in water permanently - never transformed to live on land) swims around in a shallow pan of water. It's motion is slowed down at the end to showoff its graceful movement.
A look at a breeding pond during the February breeding season, including several egg masses, and a paedomorph in the water at night.
Terrestrial adults are 3 - 5 1/5 inches long (7.6 - 13.2 cm) from snout to vent, and up to 9 3/4 inches (22 cm) total length.
Aquatic adults with gills grow up to 10.2 inches in length (26 cm).
A large, heavy, stout bodied lunged salamander with a short broad rounded head, blunt snout, small protuberant eyes, moist smooth skin with conspicuous oval parotoid glands behind the eyes and on the tail ridge.
Usually 11 costal grooves, no nasolabial grooves. The tail is flattened from side to side.
Adults occur in an aquatic gilled form, and as a fully-transformed terrestrial form with lungs.
Color and Pattern
Dark brown, gray, or black.
Populations far north of California may have cream or yellow flecks on dorsum.
Life History and Behavior
A member of the Mole Salamander family (Ambystomatidae) whose members are medium to large in size with heavy, stocky bodies.
Ambystomatid salamanders have two distinct life phases:
- Larvae hatch from eggs laid in water where they swim using an enlarged tail fin and breathe with filamentous external gills. - Aquatic larvae transform into four-legged salamanders that live on the ground and breathe air with lungs.
In some cases adults do not transform from the aquatic larval stage to a terrestrial form, instead they stay in the water throughout their lives where they grow legs, reach adult size and breed, but retain their gills and finned tails.
This retention of juvenile features in an adult is called either paedomorphosis (also spelled pedomorphosis) or neoteny.
Adults are paedomorphic or paedomorphs, or neotenic adults and they are facultative paedomorphs - meaning that some individuals metamorphose while others do not. (There are some Ambystomatid species elsewhere where individuals never undergo metamorphosis. These are called obligate paedomorphs.)
Adults spend much of their lives underground, often utilizing the tunnels of burrowing mammals such as moles and ground squirrels.
Transformed adults are most likely to be seen on rainy nights during migrations over land to and from breeding sites, or in water when breeding in ponds, lakes, and streams.
At other times of the year they stay in and under rotten logs or in moist places underground such as rodent burrows.
They are often found under surface objects near breeding pools or streams in the breeding season, and under driftwood on streambanks after storm waters recede.
When molested, terrestrial Northwestern Salamanders may emit a ticking sound from their defensive stance.
According to Stebbins and Cohen, 1997, the Northwestern Salamander "produces a 'tic' sound, constant in character, when engaging in agressive or defensive behavior. (Licht, 1973.)
Adults and larvae are mildly poisonous which may explain their survival in lakes and streams with populations of introduced fishes and bullfrogs - not typical of many other ambystomatid salamanders.
When molested, terrestrial Northwestern Salamanders may emit a ticking sound and assume a defensive posture with the head down and the tail elevated while secreting a sticky white poison from parotoid glands on the head, back, and tail. Sometimes they will butt their head and lash their tail to smear the poison on an attacker.
This poison can kill or sicken small animals and causes skin irritation in some people.
Diet and Feeding
Terrestrial salamanders eat small invertebrates.
Neotenic adults consume aquatic invertebrates and tadpoles.
Hatchlings first consume tiny aquatic crustaceans, then, as they get larger, they consume larger prey including insect larvae, snails, worms, tadpoles, and fairy shrimp.
Reproduction is aquatic, occuring in semi-permanent and permanent lakes, ponds, wetlands, and slow-flowing streams and rivers.
Salamanders most likely become sexually mature at 1 - 2 years of age.
Adults migrate to breeding waters and breed between January and April at low-elevation sites.
Breeding occurs from June to late as August at high elevation sites in the Cascades, and can take place when there is still ice on the ponds.
Peak breeding activity is known to be late February in the Seattle area.
Males arrive at the breeding site before females.
Breeding lasts from 1 - 7 weeks, the duration being dependant on the rate of temperature increase of the water.
Metamorphosed females lay 30 - 270 eggs in masses that are roughly the size of a small grapefruit , and attach them to underwater shrub branches, grass, or aquatic plants.
Neotenic females lay eggs in masses that are smaller and looser and leave them directly on the bottom of the breeding pond or lake.
Eggs become invaded by algae, which provides them with oxygen.
Eggs hatch in 2 - 9 weeks.
Larvae are pond-adapted, brown or olive green in color, with dark pigment along the base of the dorsal fin, and long feathery gills.
Larvae usually overwinter and transform after 12 - 14 months at around 3.5 inches (85 cm.) in length.
Some larvae overwinter a second year, and at high elevations, they may overwinter a third year before transforming.
Some never transform, becoming neotenic adults.
In California, found in moist habitats along the Pacific coast, including grasslands, woodlands, and forests.
Occurs from the central Sonoma County coast, north along the coast region and north Coast Ranges through the Cascade Mountains into British Columbia and north all the way to Chichagof, Alaska.
(Mark Gary, a contributor to this web site, found this salamander in central Sonoma county in 2005 near the Kruse Rhododendron Preserve. Previously, it was only recorded as far south as the mouth of the Gualala River.)
From sea level to near 5,700 ft. in the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
Notes on Taxonomy
Some experts recognize two subspecies - Ambystoma gracile gracile in the south, and A. g. decorticatum in the north.
Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)
Ambystoma gracile - Northwestern Salamander (Stebbins 2003 Ambystoma gracile gracile - Brown Salamander (Stebbins 1954, 1966, 1985)
Ambystoma gracile - Northwestern Salamander (Bishop 1943)
Ambystoma paroticum - British Columbia Salamander (Storer 1925) Ambystoma paroticum - British Columbia Salamander - Vancouver's Salamander (Grinnell and Camp 1917) Ambystoma paroticum (Baird 1867)
This species remains common in much of their range, though they have lost suitable habitat through urbanization and agricultrual development, and have undergone temporary declines in areas of clearcut logging.
Baird, 1859 - Pacific R. R. Report, Vol. 10, Williamson's Route, Pt. 4, No. 4, p. 13, pl. 44, fig. 2
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Flaxington, William C. Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Field Observations, Distribution, and Natural History. Fieldnotes Press, Anaheim, California, 2021.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Amphibians of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Bishop, Sherman C. Handbook of Salamanders. Cornell University Press, 1943.
Lannoo, Michael (Editor). Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. University of California Press, June 2005.
Petranka, James W. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
Corkran, Charlotte & Chris Thoms. Amphibians of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Lone Pine Publishing, 1996.
Jones, Lawrence L. C. , William P. Leonard, Deanna H. Olson, editors. Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Audubon Society, 2005.
Leonard et. al. Amphibians of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society, 1993.
Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie Jr., and R. M. Storm. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. Moscow, Idaho: University Press of Idaho, 1983.
Stebbins, Robert C. and Nathan W. Cohen. A Natural History of Amphibians. Princeton University Press, 1997.
Joseph Grinnell and Charles Lewis Camp. A Distributional List of the Amphibians and Reptiles of California. University of California Publications in Zoology Vol. 17, No. 10, pp. 127-208. July 11, 1917. s
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the October 2021 California "Special Animals List" and the October 2021 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
This salamander is not included on the Special Animals List, meaning there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California according to the California Department of Fish and Game.