By Ken Bevis, Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, firstname.lastname@example.org, with Noelle Nordstrom, Coordinator, Streamkeepers of Clallam County
“Wow! I saw a salamander walking across the top of the leaf litter in my forest! What are they doing cruising about like that?”
Thank you, observant small forest landowner, for that question, and allow me to say a few things about this element of our native biodiversity.
They are an elusive, yet magical presence in our woodlands. Their bulging eyes, dinosaur-like snouts (in miniature), stubby little legs, long tails, and slow-motion lifestyles are fascinating. Their habitats are hidden and always moist; under logs, deep in the soil and duff, in moss-covered rocky talus, and in forest waters. These ancient creatures are descendants of some of the earliest vertebrate species, and we are fortunate to have many in Washington.
The Pacific Northwest is a hot spot for salamanders. Their Goldilocks habitat needs are particularly well-met in Western Washington, where it is never too hot, too cold or too dry. Forests of our state with abundant down wood, deep duff, and water sources scattered about in the forest can contain an abundance of salamander species.
Washington has 14 species of native salamanders (University of Washington, Burke Museum), with a particularly high diversity on the Olympic peninsula and in the southwestern portion of the state.
Our salamanders come in three basic forms:
- Small wiggly skinny ones 3-6” long, mostly dark with varying marks on their back. Often found under something (old boards, rocks, logs, in sumps). These include the long-toed, ensatina, and Western red-backed salamanders; the Dunn’s, VanDyke’s and Larch Mountain salamanders who love moist and rocky areas; and also the torrent salamanders, which depend on headwater streams and seeps.
- Big, dark, mottled, dinosaur-looking ones that are 6-12” long, sometimes seen cruising over leaf litter, under logs, or living in a stream. These are the Cope’s and Coastal Giants (Dicamptodon spp), and the Northwestern (Ambystoma spp) giant salamanders. These especially occur in the Olympics and southwest Washington.
- Rough of skin with a spectacular orange belly, about 6” long – Our one-of-a-kind rough-skinned newt. These critters breed en masse in some ponds and then disperse across the uplands for surprisingly long distances.
Several of the most common salamanders in the small wiggly category are mostly or completely terrestrial, living their entire lives in moist rotting wood, talus, and underground passages made by small mammals such as moles.
Wide-spread species are the Western red-backed and the ensatina. They have similar life histories, with eggs laid in tiny chambers in rotting wood where the females will guard the eggs from predators. (Imagine the underground drama of a marauding shrew attempting to eat the closely guarded eggs of an enraged mama ensatina!)
Small forest landowners commonly encounter these species, often when moving wood or old lumber. Note the markings (or lack of) on the backs when you find one.
The Cope’s and coastal giants live in association with live streams, mostly. In fact, these salamanders usually live full time resting at the bottom of deep pools in coastal and lowland streams in far Western Washington. They eat aquatic insects and small fish, yes, including baby salmon. (No, we don’t need to control them!) They can be up to 12” long and are an amazing and monstrous presence to behold.
The Northwestern salamander is one of the giants but is in a different family (Ambystoma) and has a more terrestrial set of habits. It is mostly nocturnal and often goes out cruising in the forest, like this one we encountered near Chehalis. It prefers still waters, like ponds and ephemeral puddles.
And then there are the rough-skinned newts. These charismatic little orange and brown gems will travel a surprisingly long way to standing water for breeding before returning to their subterranean upland haunts.
They have a remarkable set of mating behaviors. Breeding balls are formed, which can have dozens of adults clinging onto each other in a frenzy of sexual activity. Wow! The eggs are laid in the pond, one at a time and attached to vegetation. After a period of development, the juveniles make their way overland to find somewhere to live, usually under something rotten.
They have a bright orange belly that says, “Watch OUT!” Their skin carries a neurotoxin that will make some predators sick (or kill them!), including humans. They can be safely touched or held, but be sure to wash your hands after handling, and don’t lick (or eat) the newts!
There is a silent salamander “arms race” going on between rough-skinned newts and garter snakes. The garter snakes are the newts’ only real predator, and the snakes are immune to the toxin. The newts keep evolving to have stronger toxins, and the snakes then respond with stronger immunity to it. Different local populations of these two species will vary in their toxicity/immunity relationship from place to place. (Thanks for that cool tidbit, Noelle!)
What can the small forest landowner do to help our salamanders?
Retain rotten wood wherever you can, especially the really rotten stuff. Keep those small ponds and wetlands intact and protected. Avoid grazing right into ponds and puddles. Don’t introduce fish where they already don’t occur. Fish are predators of amphibians, especially larvae. Kill bullfrogs. Keep deciduous plants that shade the water – deciduous is better, as it allows the water to heat up a bit before the leaves come out, when the salamanders need some warming!
Sometimes there are places in our forests where water collects in closed puddles or pools. We call these features vernal ponds, where the water goes away in the dry parts of the year but stays long enough to provide significant environmental and habitat functions early in the season.
Many amphibians will use these features for breeding, especially if they last long enough for egg-laying and larvae development. These are great places to find egg masses from the Northwestern giant salamander! Look for a grapefruit-sized egg mass, often surrounding a stick or grass stem. A symbiotic algae often grows within the egg masses.
These vernal ponds provide a place for substantial microbial life, algae and diatoms, providing for small insects that can feed the amphibians in their reproductive mode. Sometimes these wet spots seem inconvenient but are particularly valuable as they allow water to slowly recede into the soil and subterranean recesses as groundwater.
Salamanders: Understated. Elegant. Cool. Amazing creatures deserving our help.
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