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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


California Giant Salamander - Dicamptodon ensatus

(Eschscholtz, 1833)
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California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Small adult, Santa Clara County (about 3.5 inches svl)
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Small adult, Santa Clara County Juvenile, Sonoma County (3 inches svl)
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Juvenile, Marin County (2 inches svl)
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Small adult, Santa Cruz County Small adult, Santa Cruz County Small adult, Santa Cruz County
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Adult, Sonoma County (about 4 inches svl) Large adult, (a little over 11 inches in total length and nearly 6 inches svl) Marin County.   © Tim Burkhardt
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Sub-adult, Santa Cruz County Adult, Santa Cruz County © Becca Morn
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Adult, San Mateo County
© Melissa Amarello
Adult, found on a rock on an October afternoon in Marin County.
© William Mays
Adult, found in shallow water in daylight, Santa Cruz County. © Scott Peden
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
9-inch adult moving on a November afternoon, Santa Cruz County.
© Scott Peden
Unusually warty neotenic adult (about 7 inches in length) found in a stream in Santa Cruz County.  © Ian Gaston
I have not yet discovered the origin of this warty condition or if it is known in this species. A similar warty condition has been found in California Newts found in San Diego County. That condition was determined to be from disease. Warty newts have also been reported on the San Francisco Peninsula.

This is a smaller less-warty aquatic salamander from the same area in Santa Cruz County as the one to the left.
© Ian Gaston
Feeding
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
Max Kelley found this adult eating a large rodent, possibly a Wood Rat, one late November day in San Mateo County. In this picture, only the rodent's long tail is still visible.
© Max Kelley

Nancy Gribler discovered this large adult eating a Banana Slug one night in her Marin County back yard.
© Nancy Gribler
Suzanne Cogen found this adult eating a Banana Slug at 3 PM in mid December in Sonoma County.
© Suzanne Cogen
Aquatic Larvae
California Giant Salamander larva California Giant Salamander larva California Giant Salamander larva
Very small aquatic larva in water, Sonoma County

Habitat
California Giant Salamander Habitat California Giant Salamander Habitat California Giant Salamander Habitat
Habitat, San Mateo County
Habitat, Sonoma County Habitat, Marin County
California Giant Salamander Habitat California Giant Salamander Habitat California Giant Salamander Habitat
Habitat, Santa Clara County

Habitat, Santa Clara County

Habitat, Sonoma County
Sounds and Videos
California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander California Giant Salamander
A short video of a juvenile California Giant Salamander in the Redwoods. After discovering this small adult hiding under a small fallen log in the Sonoma County redwoods, Jeff Rice and I set up our recorders and aimed our microphones. Then I gently picked it up with my thumb and two fingers grasping the sides of its body, firmly, but without squeezing so hard I was merely pushing air out of its lungs. The salamander squirmed from side to side and opened its mouth slightly. After about 10 seconds it made the chirping sound that you can hear here. This species is capable of making a farily loud sound, but this one was very quiet, so there is a lot of background noise from a running creek nearby. This short video shows some of the sounds this salamander is capable of making.

A hiker in mid February observed this huge adult CA Giant Salamander walking on a dirt trail at 1 PM in Santa Cruz County. He had no idea what it was when he got close with his video camera, and was startled to hear a loud rattling bark - and the camera movement shows it. You can just barely see the salamander opening its mouth as it produces this first roar. Then we can hear the salamander making some more raspy rattling sounds as it stands in a defensive posture. After using this site to identify the huge mysterious rattling beast he saw in the forest, he sent me the video so that we can all admire this salamander's performance.
 

 
Description

Size
Adults are 2 1/2 to 6 4/5 inches long (6.25 - 17 cm) from snout to vent, 6.7 - 12 inches (17 - 30.5 cm) in total length.
Appearance
One of the largest terrestrial salamanders in North America, with a large robust body, a massive head, and stout limbs. Light reddish brown coloring above is overlaid with copper-colored marbling. The venter is whitish or dull yellow, usually unmarked. Transformed adults have 12 - 13 indistinct costal grooves. The tail is flattened from side to side to facilitate swimming. Stream-type larvae have tail fins that extend forward only to the hind limbs, often with heavy black mottling. Gills are short, bushy, and dull red.
Behavior and Natural History
Little is known about the natural history of D. ensatus, much of which is presumed from studies of the similar D. tenebrosus.   This salamander is nocturnal, but also active in daylight in wet conditions. Transformed animals forage on the forest floor on rainy nights, and during daylight in wet periods in winter. They can be found walking across roads on rainy nights, especially with the first heavy rains of the fall, usually in November. Adults are also found under cover objects such as rocks, logs and artificial cover.

Large adults are capable of delivering a painful bite.

Neotenic adults which retain their gills and live in water are found in many populations. These gilled adults may outnumber transformed individuals.
Sound
This salamander often produces a vocal sound when threatened, which is a low rattling bark-like sound. According to Stebbins and Cohen, 1997, the Coastal Giant Salamander has "...vocal cords and can bark or rattle. Its sounds are thought to startle predators."
Diet
Presumably, the diet consists of anything small enough for a salamander to overpower and eat, including slugs and other invertebrates, and small vertebrates such as salamanders, small rodents, and lizards. Aquatic larvae probably have a similar diet to the larvae of Dicamptodon tenebrosus, which consists of small aquatic invertebrates and small fish hatchlings.
Reproduction and Young
Reproduction is aquatic. Breeding occurs in spring and fall. Adults move from land into the breeding creeks where they can be found under stones and logs.

Females lay from 70 - 100 large, unpigmented eggs and attach them singly to rocks and logs underwater. In a laboratory, eggs hatched in nearly 5 months.

Larvae transform in probably around 18 months. Young larvae are found in still water near the shoreline, often under small rocks and leaf litter. Older larvae are found in the main stream channel.  Larvae are more abundant than transformed adults. They can be found exposed in the water at night by shining a light in a stream.
Range
Endemic to California, found in two, possibly three isolated regions, from Mendocino County near Point Arena east into the coast rages into Lake and Glenn counties, south to Sonoma and Marin Counties, continuing south of the San Francisco Bay from San Mateo County to southern Santa Cruz County. Does not occur east of the SF Bay. There is an old unconfirmed sight record from Big Sur, Monterey County.
Habitat
Occurs in wet coastal forests in or near clear, cold permanent and semi-permanent streams and seepages. One population has been found inhabiting flowing water in a network of caves.
Sea level to near 3,000 ft.
Taxonomic Notes
The genus Dicamptodon as split into three species when evidence showed that salamanders from the south Bay area to Sonoma County were genetically distinct from those to the north and from animals in Idaho and Montana. The southern species became Dicamptodon ensatus - California Giant Salamander, the northern species became Dicamptodon tenebrosus - Coastal Giant Salamander, and the eastern species became Dicamptodon aterrimus - Idaho Giant Salamander.

According to a March 20th 2006 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinal, UC Santa Cruz biologist Barry Sinervo is studying a type of giant salamander that lives in a network of caves in Santa Cruz County. The salamanders, which are strictly aquatic and apparently blind, may prove to be a new species, or just an unusual form of Dicamptodon ensatus.
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
There is not much evidence to show that the current distribution of this species is different from the historical distribution, however extensive habitat alteration in its range has most likely destroyed some populations. Forest removal and road building near streams has reduced the number of larvae of the similar species Dicamptodon tenebrosus, while opening of the forest canopy over streams may also be temporarily beneficial to the larvae.

Protected from take with a sport fishing license in 2013.
Taxonomy
Family Dicamptodontidae Giant Salamanders Tihen, 1958
Genus Dicamptodon Pacific Giant Salamanders Strauch, 1870
Species


ensatus California Giant Salamander (Eschscholtz, 1833)
Original Description
Eschscholtz, 1833 - Zool. Atlas, Pt. 5, p. 6, pl. 22

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

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Dicamptodon: Greek - two curved, bent teeth, referring to doubly curved teeth.
ensatus: Latin - sword-shaped, possibly refers to the pointed teeth.

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

Alternate Names
Foremerly recognized as the species Dicamptodon ensatus - Pacific Giant Salamander

Related California Salamanders
Coastal Giant Salamander

More Information and References
Natureserve Explorer

California Dept. of Fish and Game

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.

Jones, Lawrence L. C. , William P. Leonard, Deanna H. Olson, editors. Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Audubon Society, 2005.

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 SSC California Species of Special Concern
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None
 

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