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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Northwestern Salamander - Ambystoma gracile

(Baird, 1859)
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Northwestern Salamander CA Range Map


observation link



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Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander
Adult, Mendocino County Adult, Humboldt County
Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander
Adult, Del Norte County, showing white defensive secretions on the tail and on the parotoid gland behind the eye.
Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander
Adult, Del Norte County
© Alan Barron
Sub-adult, Del Norte County
© Alan Barron
Adult, Del Norte County
© Alan Barron
Northwestern Salamander    
Adult, Mendocino County, in defensive position, excreting milky secretions from head, sides, and tail.
© Val Johnson

   
Northwestern Salamanders From Outside California
Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander
  Adult, King County, Washington  
Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander
Recently-transformed juvenile. Adult male during the breeding season, showing a swollen vent. Large aquatic adult, 5,700 ft.,
Pierce county, Washington
Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander
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. Neotenic or paedomorphic adult, from near sea level in King County, Washington. Larva in water.
  Northwestern Salamander  
  Egg mass attached to a stick that was submerged in a small pond.

 
Habitat
Northwestern Salamander Habitat Northwestern Salamander Habitat Northwestern Salamander Habitat
Habitat, Mendocino County Redwood forest habitat,
Humboldt County
Habitat, breeding pond, Del Norte County
Northwestern Salamander Habitat Northwestern Salamander Habitat Northwestern Salamander Habitat
Habitat, Humboldt County Habitat, Humboldt County Breeding pond, Pacific
County, Washington

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.



Short Videos
Northwestern Salamander Northwestern Salamander  
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.  
Description

Size
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. Gilled adults grow up to 10.2 inches in length (26 cm).
Appearance
A large, heavy, stout bodied lunged salamander with a short broad rounded head, blunt snout, small protuberant eyes, moist smooth skin. Dark brown, gray, or black. Populations far north of California may have cream or yellow flecks on dorsum. Conspicuous oval parotoid glands behind the eyes and on the tail ridge. Usually 11 costal grooves, no nasolabial grooves, tail flattened from side to side. Adults occur in an aquatic gilled form, and as a fully-transformed terrestrial lunged form.
Behavior and Natural History
A member of the Mole Salamander family (Ambystomatidae) whose members are medium to large in size with heavy, stocky bodies. Adults spend much of their lives underground, often utilizing the tunnels of burrowing mammals such as moles and ground squirrels. Ambystomatid salamanders have two distinct life phases. Larvae are born in the water where they swim using an enlarged tail fin and breathe with filamentous external gills. Generally, these aquatic larvae transform into four-legged salamanders that live on the ground and breathe air with lungs.

In some cases adults do not metamorphose from the aquatic larval stage, 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.)

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.

Adults and larvae are mildly poisonous. which may explain their survival in lakes and streams with populations of introduced fishes and bullfrogs, which is 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.
Sound
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.)
Diet
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 and Young
Breeding is aquatic, and occurs 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.
Range
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.)
Habitat
In California, found in moist habitats along the Pacific coast, including grasslands, woodlands, and forests from sea level to near 5,700 ft. in the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
Taxonomic Notes
Some experts recognize two subspecies - Ambystoma gracile gracile in the south, and A. g. decorticatum in the north.
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
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.
Taxonomy
Family Ambystomatidae Mole Salamanders Gray, 1850
Genus Ambystoma Mole Salamanders Tschudi, 1838
Species


gracile Northwestern Salamander (Baird, 1859)
Original Description
Baird, 1859 - Pacific R. R. Report, Vol. 10, Williamson's Route, Pt. 4, No. 4, p. 13, pl. 44, fig. 2

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Ambystoma: anabystoma - to cram into the mouth. Possibly derived from Amblystoma: Greek - blunt mouth.
gracile: Latin - slender, delicate

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Alternate Names
None

Related or Similar California Salamanders
Coastal Giant Salamander
Black Salamander
California Tiger Salamander
Southern Long-toed Salamander

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

AmphibiaWeb

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.

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.

Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.


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.



Organization
Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None
 

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