You can see more pictures of Oregon Ensatinas and their habitat from Washington and Oregon here.
An adult Enstaina crawls around on the forest floor. A juvenile shows it can move very fast when it wants to.
Several adult Oregon Ensatinas and a tiny black juvenile which has lost its tail wish they could crawl back under their logs in Washington.
A couple of adult Ensatina discovered out on the surface at night in Marin County
An adult Ensatina measures from 1.5 - 3.2 inches long (3.8 - 8.1 cm) from snout to vent, and 3 - 6 inches (7.5 - 15.5 cm) in total length.
A medium-sized salamander.
The legs are long, and the body is relatively short, with 12 - 13 costal grooves.
Nasolabial grooves are present.
The tail is rounded and constricted at the base, which will differentiate this salamander from its neighbors.
Color and Pattern
This subspecies is light to dark brown above with small yellow to orange flecks.
The sides are yellowish-orange and mottled with light markings.
The underside is whitish with fine black speckling.
There is yellow to orange coloring on the base of the limbs.
Juveniles have dark blotches on the body and tail, but typically have the yellow or orange limb coloring.
Male / Female Differences
Males have longer, more slender tails than females, and a shorter snout with an enlarged upper lip, while the bodies of females are usually shorter and fatter than the bodies of males.
Life History and Behavior
A member of family Plethodontidae, the Plethodontid or Lungless Salamanders.
Plethodontid salamanders do not breathe through lungs. They conduct respiration through their skin and the tissues lining their mouth. This requires them to live in damp environments on land and to move about on the ground only during times of high humidity. (Plethodontid salamanders native to California do not inhabit streams or bodies of water but they are capable of surviving for a short time if they fall into water.)
Plethodontid salamanders are also distinguished by their naso-labial grooves, which are vertical slits between the nostrils and upper lip that are lined with glands associated with chemoreception.
All Plethodontid Salamanders native to California lay eggs in moist places on land.
The young develop in the egg and hatch directly into a tiny terrestrial salamander with the same body form as an adult.
(They do not hatch in the water and begin their lives as tiny swimming larvae breathing through gills like some other types of salamanders.)
Ensatina live in relatively cool moist places on land becoming most active on rainy or wet nights when temperatures are moderate. They stay underground during hot and dry periods where they are able to tolerate considerable dehydration.
They may also continue to feed underground during the summer months.
High-altitude populations are also inactive during severe winter cold. Longevity has been estimated at up to 15 years.
Adults have been observed marking and defending territories outside of the breeding season.
Longevity has been estimated at up to 15 years.
When it feels severely threatened by a predator, an Ensatina may detach its tail from the body to distract the predator. The tail moves back and forth on the ground to attract the predator while the Ensatina slowly crawls away to safety. The tail can be re-grown.
The tail also contains a high density of poison glands. When disturbed, an Ensatina will stand tall in a stiff-legged defensive posture with its back swayed and the tail raised up while it secretes a milky white substance from the tail, swaying from side to side. This noxious substance repels predators, although some experienced predators learn to eat all but the tail. The poison is also exuded from glands on the head.
If a person gets the poison on their lips, they will experience some numbness for several hours. (Charles Brown - Ensatina.net)
Predators include Stellar's Jays, gartersnakes, and racoons.
(Kuchta and Parks, Lanoo ed. - Amphibian Declines... 2005)
Diet and Feeding
Ensatinas eat a wide variety of invertebrates, including worms, ants, beetles, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs, and snails.
They expell a relatively long sticky tongue from the mouth to capture the prey and pull it back into the mouth where it is crushed and killed, then swallowed.
Typically feeding is done using sit-and-wait ambush tactics, but sometimes Ensatinas will slowly stalk their prey.
Rarely, Ensatina make a hissing sound, similar to the hissing of a snake, when threatened.
(Stebbins 1951; Brodie, 1978.)
Reproduction is terrestrial.
Mating takes place in Fall and Spring, but may also occur throughout the winter.
Stebbins describes an elaborate Ensatina courtship involving the male rubbing his body and head against the female eventually dropping a sperm capsule onto the ground which the female picks up with her cloaca. A description and illustration of this courtship can be seen here. You can also watch an Ensatina courtship video on YouTube.
The female can store the sperm until she determines the time is right to fertilize her eggs.
At the end of the rainy season, typically April or May, females retreat to their aestivation site under bark, in rotting logs, or in underground animal burrows, and lay their eggs.
Females lay 3 - 25 eggs, with 9 - 16 being average.
Females remain with the eggs to guard them until they hatch. (You can see pictures of two Ensatinas with their eggs and hatchlings here.)
In labs, eggs have hatched in 113 - 177 days.
Young develop completely in the egg and probably leave the nesting site with the first saturating Fall rains, or, at higher elevations, after the snow melts.
Inhabits moist shaded evergreen and deciduous forests and oak woodlands. Found under rocks, logs, other debris, especially bark that has peeled off and fallen beside logs and trees.
Most common where there is a lot of coarse woody debris on the forest foor. In dry or very cold weather, stays inside moist logs, animal burrows, under roots, woodrat nests, under rocks.
Oregon Ensatina are traditionally reported as occurring along the Pacific coast from southwest British Columbia south to Sonoma county. Stebbins (2003) eliminated the range of the subspecies E. e. oregonensis in California, showing instead, a very large area of intergradation in California, which means that this subspecies does not actually occur in California in its pure form. A trace of yellow in the eyes remains on most Ensatina found along the north coast of California. This yellow coloring is not found on the pure Oregon Ensatina found in Oregon and Washington, which supports Stebbins' decision. Due to the very large area inhabited by these intergrades, I label them as Oregon Ensatina on this web site even though they are technically intergrades.
Ensatina is the most widely-distributed plethodontid salamander in the West, ranging from an isolated location in the mountains of Baja California north along the extreme northwest coast of Baja California, through most of California excluding the deserts, the central valley, and high elevations in the mountains, continuing north into Oregon and Washington west of the Cascades Mountains, and farther north into Canada along the coast of southern British Columbia. Also found on Vancouver Island.
The range maps in Stebbins (2003 and 2012) show a very large range of intergradation between 4 subspecies in Northern California that at one time was considered part of the range E. e. oregonensis. I show this range on my maps as E. e. oregonensis partly because Stebbins & McGinnis, 2012, report that molecular studies have shown complexities that make the use of the term "intergrade" innacurate.
In his 2003 field guide, Stebbins shows the elevational range of Ensatina eschscholtzii as "Sea level to around 11,000 ft (3,350 m). That is for the species but not necessarily this subspecies.
Notes on Taxonomy
Robert Stebbins refers to this taxon not as a subspecies, but as a "morphotype," which he defines as "a morphologically recognizable set of populations with a geographic range that may be out of synchrony with taxonomic findings based on molecular evidence." (Stebbins, 2003) His range map does not show this morphotype occurring in California. The California populations of E. e. oregonensis shown on older range maps are now labeled integrades by Stebbins, and we follow his map. This site treats these intergrades separately from the other subspecies, in order to show some of the variation in their appearance across their widespread distribution in the state.
Ensatina taxonomy is controversial. The species Ensatina eschscholtzii traditionally consists of 7 subspecies:
Some researchers see Ensatina eschscholtzii as two or more species that make up a superspecies complex.
They recognize E. e. klauberi, found at the southern end of the ring, as a separate species - Ensatina klauberi.
Ensatina as a Ring Species
Ensatina eschscholtzii has been called a "ring" species, or "Rassenkreis" (race circle) "...a connected series of neighbouring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two 'end' populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each 'linked' population. Such non-breeding, though genetically connected, 'end' populations may co-exist in the same region thus closing a 'ring'." (Wickipedia, 8/26/17) The "end" populations of Ensatina are the E. e. escholtzii and the E. e. klauberi subspecies, which hybridize in San Diego County.
Charles W. Brown explains the taxonomy of the Ensatina complex in detail, describing it as "a classical example of Darwinian evolution by gradualism; an accumulation of micro mutations that is now leading to the formation of a new species."
Illustration of the Ensatina ring:
Use: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Photo Credit: Thomas J. Devitt, Stuart J.E. Baird and Craig Moritz, 2011.
Source: (2011). "Asymmetric reproductive isolation between terminal forms of the salamander ring species Ensatina eschscholtzii revealed by fine-scale genetic analysis of a hybrid zone". BMC Evolutionary Biology 11 (1): 245. DOI:10.1186/1471-2148-11-245.
What Subspecies of Ensatina Occurs in San Francisco?
Determining the taxonomy of Ensatina in San Francisco County and the west side of the San Francisco Bay has been challenging:
The range map in Stebbins, Robert C. Amphibians and Reptiles of Western North America. McGraw-Hill, 1954, shows them to be intergrades, but does not indicate whether they itergrade with E. e. eschscholtzii or with E. e. oregonensis.
The range map in Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Amphibians and Reptiles. Houghton Mifflin. 1985. shows them to be intergrades, but does not indicate whether they itergrade with E. e. eschscholtzii or with E. e. oregonensis.
The large color range map in Thelander, Carl G., editor in chief. Life on the Edge - A Guide to California's Endangered Natural Resources - Wildlife. Berkeley: Bio Systems Books, 1994. based on two of Stebbins works appears to show them as intergrades with E. e. eschscholtzii but that is not clear either.
The range map in Petranka, James W. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution, 1998. shows them to be E. e. oregonensis.
The range map in Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Amphibians and Reptiles Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin. 2003. is too small to show that part of the peninsula.
The range map in Joao Alexandrino, Stuart J. E. Baird, Lucinda Lawson, J. Robert Macey, Craig Moritz, and David B. Wake. Strong Selection Against Hybrids at a Hybrid Zone in the Ensatina Ring Species Complex and Its Evolutionary Implications. Evolution, 59(6), 2005, pp. 1334–1347. shows them to be E. e. oregonensis
David B. Wake. Problems with Species: Patterns and Processes of Species Formation in Salamanders. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 93: 8–23. Published on 31 May 2006. shows a range map (click here to see it) based on a preliminary analysis from a study in progress using mitochondrial DNA in which Ensatina on the SF peninsula are shown as
E. e. xanthoptica but there are E. e. oregonensis clades show on the coast south of there. (A color map in the same paper shows the entire area west of the S.F. Bay to beE. e. oregonensis.)
The map used by Devitt, et al, 2011, shown above in their illustration of the Ensatina ring, shows them to be E. e. oregonensis.
A range map in Shawn R. Kuchta, Duncan S. Parks, David B. Wake. Pronounced phylogeographic structure on a small spatial scale: Geomorphological evolution and lineage history in the salamander ring species Ensatina eschscholtzii in central coastal California. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50 (2009) 240–255 shows them to be E. e. xanthoptica (with E. e. oregonensis to the southwest.) (Click here to see the map.)
The range map in 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. shows them to be E. e. xanthoptica.
There are certainly more studies with more maps which I have not seen, but since some recent research shows them as E. e. xanthoptica (and photos I've seen of Ensatina from San Francisco corroborate this) I will show them as such until further research shows otherwise.
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.
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.
Joao Alexandrino, Stuart J. E. Baird, Lucinda Lawson, J. Robert Macey, Craig Moritz, and David B. Wake. Strong Selection Against Hybrids at a Hybrid Zone in the Ensatina Ring Species Complex and Its Evolutionary Implications. Evolution, 59(6), 2005, pp. 1334–1347.
Shawn R. Kuchta, Duncan S. Parks, David B. Wake. Pronounced phylogeographic structure on a small spatial scale: Geomorphological evolution and lineage history in the salamander ring species Ensatina eschscholtzii in central coastal California. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50 (2009) 240–255
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.
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "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, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.