A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Sierra Nevada Ensatina -
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis

(Espada, 1875)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Ensatina California Range Map
Range in California: Orange

Click the map for a key to
the other Ensatina subspecies

observation link

Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
  Adult, Kern County  
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Mariposa County Adult, Kern County Adult, Kern County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult and large juvenile, Kern County Adult, 1,100 ft., Fresno County Juvenile, Tulare County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Mariposa County Adult underside, Kern County Adult, Fresno County (notice the defensive milking on tail.) © Tim Burkhardt
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Butte County
© Jackson Shedd
Adult, in defensive posture,
Mariposa County
On August 2nd in Tulare County, Ricky Grubb photographed this adult Sierra Nevada Ensatina brooding approximately 10 eggs inside a rotting log of a fallen Giant Sequoia.  © Ricky Grubb
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Small juvenile, Tulare County Small juvenile, Butte County
© Jackson Shedd
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Greenhorn Mountains,
Kern County © Ryan Sikola
Adult, Greenhorn Mountains,
Kern County © Ryan Sikola
Adult, Kern Plateau  © 2003 Brad Alexander

The presence of Ensatina on the Kern Plateau in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains was confirmed in 2003 when Brad Alexander found several (including the orange and lilac salamander shown above) on a rainy night in an area where he had seen them many years previously. Because of its range and appearance, this animal is included with the subspecies E. e. platensis, although it is possible that research on this animal could prove otherwise.
Intergrades or Hybrids
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis intergrade adult, Shasta County, before and after excreting milky defensive fluids.
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis intergrades, Shasta County E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis juvenile, Shasta County E. e. croceator x E. e. platensis Intergrade, Kern County
Yellow-eyed Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina
Yellow-eyed Ensatina x Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica x Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis) intergrade/hybrid, Calaveras County © Chad M. Lane
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina  
This adult and juvenile were found near Twain Harte in Tuolumne County, which is in the contact or hybrid zone between E. e. xanthoptica and E. e. platensis
© Taryn Horn
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat Kings River Slender Salamander Habitat
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat
Habitat, 5,900 ft., Kern County Habitat, 1,100 ft., Fresno County Habitat, Tulare County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat
Habitat, Shasta County
Habitat, Yosemite Valley,
Mariposa County
Habitat, 5,900 ft., Kern County
Short Video
  Sierra Nevada Ensatina  
  A Sierra Nevada Ensatina in the mountains of Kern County.  
Adult Ensatina measure 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 gray to dark brown above, with reddish to orange spots.
The underside is pale gray to whitish.
Yellow to orange coloring is present on the base of the limbs.
The upper eyelids have yellow to orange spots.

Juveniles are darker with fewer spots.
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 their mouth tissues, which 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 some 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 severely threatened, an Ensatina may drop its tail to distract the attention of a predator towards the writhing tail so the animal can crawl 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 and secrete a milky white substance from the tail, swaying the it from side to side. This noxious substance repels predators, although some experienced predators learn to eat all but the tail. If a person gets the poison on their lips, they will experience some numbness for several hours.1
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.
Breeding 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.

Geographical Range
This subspecies of Ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - Sierra Nevada Ensatina, is endemic to California. Found in the Sierra Nevada mountains from the Greenhorn Mountains north to the area around Mt. Lassen where integrades with
E. e. oregonensis
(or E. e. picta) occur. Some individuals in the lower Kern River Canyon are intergrades with
E. e. croceater

From around 1,000 ft. (305 m) to around 11,000 ft. (3,350 m).

In the central Sierra Nevada mountains, it occurs at higher elevations than E. e. xanthoptica.

Ensatina are the most widely-distributed plethodontid salamanders 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 Ensatina range map shown here shows a very large range of intergradation in Northern California between 4 subspecies as shown by Stebbins (2003 and 2012) that at one time was considered part of the range E. e. oregonensis. Molecular studies have shown complexities that make the use of intergrade innacturate (Stebbins & McGinnis 2012), but I will continue to use the term until more studies determine the taxonomy of this region, and in the other intergrade zones in the state.

Full Species Range Map
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.

Notes on Taxonomy
Hybridizes with E. e. xanthoptica in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Ensatina eschscholtzii is typically treated as a "ring" species, consisting of 7 subspecies:

E. e. croceater
E. e. eschscholtzii

E. e. klauberi

E. e. oregonensis

E. e. picta

E. e. platensis

E. e. xanthoptica

These subspecies ring the Central Valley but do not interbreed where the rings overlap in Southern California (and possibly in the central Sierra Nevada.) These contact zones are still under study.

Some researchers see Ensatina eschscholtzii as two or more species forming a superspecies complex, recognizing E. e. klauberi, found at the southern end of the ring, as a separate species - Ensatina klauberi.
E. e. eschscholtzii
has been found to hybridize with intergrades of E. e. croceator and E. e. klauberi.

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."

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Stebbins 2003, 2012)
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis
- Sierra Nevada Salamander (Ensatina) (Stebbins 1966, 1985)
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - ssp. of Eschscholtz's Salamander (Stebbins 1954)
Ensatina sierrae - Sierra Nevada Salamander (Bishop 1943)
Ensatina croceater - Yellow-spotted Salamander (Storer 1925)
Plethodon croceater (Cope 1867)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Family Plethodontidae Lungless Salamanders Gray, 1850
Genus Ensatina Ensatinas Gray, 1850
Species Eschscholtzii Ensatina Gray, 1850

platensis Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Espada, 1875)
Original Description
Ensatina eschscholtzii - Gray, 1850 - Cat. Spec. Amph. Coll. Brit. Mus., Batr. Grad., p. 48
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - Jimenez de la Espada, 1875) - An. Soc. Espan. Hist. Nat. 4, p. 71, pl. 1

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

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Ensatina: Latin - sword shaped/similar to, possibly referring to the teeth.
eschscholtzii: honors Johann F. Eschscholtz.
platensis: Belonging to the Rio La Plata, Uruguay. Espada named this salamander Urotropis platensis because he thought
it came from Montevideo, Uruguay.The specimen was probably mis-labelled.

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

Related California Salamanders
Large-blotched Ensatina
Monterey Ensatina
Oregon Ensatina
Painted Ensatina
Yellow-eyed Ensatina
Yellow-blotched Ensatina

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife


Charles W. Brown's Ensatina Web Site

Hansen, Robert W. Kern River Research Area Field Notes Spring 1997 Vol. 6, No. 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.

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.

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

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, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.

Status Listing
NatureServe Global Ranking
NatureServe State Ranking
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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