Santa Cruz Black Salamander

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I found this cool creature while herping the Golden State. They can measure up to 5-1/2 inches in total length. As their name implies, they are often solid black, though they sometimes sport a few fine white specks.

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This amphibian belongs to a large group known as Lungless Salamanders; they do not breathe through lungs, instead they conduct respiration through their skin and the tissues lining their mouth. This requires them to live in damp environments on land and travel only during times of high humidity.

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The Santa Cruz Black Salamander lives in forested areas and grasslands, where it uses rock slides, rotten logs and surface debris for cover. Like most salamanders, it feeds on small invertebrates such as spiders, beetles, ants and termites.

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This is a terrestrial amphibian that does not need standing or flowing water for breeding or any other part of its life cycle, although it may be found close to creeks or seeps. There is direct development of eggs into juveniles that resemble miniature adults, except with some color variation.

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It was enjoyable to make my acquaintance with this animal, which only lives within a very limited range and is endemic to California.

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Southern Two-lined Salamander

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While visiting southern Illinois in October of this year, I came across a few of these fine amphibians while exploring a creek. Southern Two-lined Salamanders are fairly small, usually being three to four inches in total length inches in total length.

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They are tan to light yellow with two distinct black stripes running from their eyes to their tail. This creature is found in moist habitats – most commonly beneath rocks, leaves, and logs along the edges of woodland streams and seeps – but some may occur on the forest floor as well.

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Like most salamanders, the Southern Two-lined Salamander eats small invertebrates like spiders, ticks, earthworms, beetles, millipedes, snails, grubs, flies and ants.

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Adults head to breeding streams in late Winter to early Spring. Their eggs are attached under rocks in streams and the female attends the eggs until they hatch in late Spring. Their aquatic larval period lasts from 1-3 years.

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I have Northern Two-lined Salamanders residing in the creek in my backyard, so it was nice to see their southern relatives while herping in the Land of Lincoln.

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Spotted Dusky Salamander

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This was a neat “lifer” that I encountered on my recent visit to southern Illinois. It only resides in Pulaski and Johnson counties in the southern part of the state. I found several in a small creek.

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The Spotted Dusky Salamander’s coloration is variable from tan to brown to nearly black. It frequently has 6 to 8 pairs of golden or reddish dorsal spots, which are normally separated, but may fuse to form a light-colored band.

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This species occurs along small lowland streams and in seepage areas, where it hunts for and eats earthworms, spiders, mites, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and other insects.

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Dusky Salamanders are of the genus Desmognathus, derived from the Greek word desmos, meaning “ligament,” and gnathos, meaning “jaw.” It refers to the visibly enlarged bundle of ligaments on the sides of the heads of these salamanders.

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Species of this genus have a unique jaw-opening mechanism where the lower jaw is stationary and the skull swings open. Its skeletal and musculature features have evolved to accompany this type of jaw-opening mechanism.

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Sometimes referred to as a “Spring Lizard,” Spotted Dusky Salamanders are known to exhibit maternal care by brooding over their eggs.

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Lesser Siren

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While visiting southern Illinois, I had an encounter with this “lifer” amphibian. Sirens are usually regarded as the most primitive living salamanders; they share a conspicuous basic characteristic – the absence of rear limbs.

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Another feature of this awesome amphibian is that it retains and uses its external gills throughout its life. Lesser Sirens are completely aquatic, rarely leaving water unless its an absolutely necessary.

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Some bodies of water where they reside are temporary and may dry up at certain times of the year. In these cases, the salamander can secrete a cocoon, of sorts, which protects them from dehydrating. It can stay in this state of “suspended animation” for more than a year, until its pond refills with water.

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Lesser Sirens grow to about two feet and prefer to live in swamps, ponds ditches and shallow wetlands with abundant vegetation and muddy bottoms. It is nocturnal, spending its days hidden in the debris and mud at the bottom of slow-moving bodies of water.

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This creature feeds mainly on small insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates, such as worms and snails. The flattened head suggests that this creature burrows in the mud and its tiny eyes indicate that vision is not important to its survival at the bottom of dark swamplands.

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Unlike most salamanders, the Lesser Siren is vocal, and will emit a series of clicks when it approaches others of its kind, It also has the ability to “yelp” if it is handled.

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This amphibian is also known as the Two-legged Eel, Dwarf Siren and Mud Eel. It was super cool to finally meet on of the elusive creatures “in person” on this years visit to the Land of Lincoln.

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Rough-skinned Newt

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Rough-skinned Newts have relatively grainy and dry skin compared to other salamanders. They also have a fairly stocky shape. This distinctive salamander is two toned: dull grey to brown on top, and bright orange to yellow below.

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Their bright belly color serves as a warning to would-be predators. When disturbed, the newt will curve its head, neck and tail upwards to display it.

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I often find them in forested environments under rotting logs. Like most amphibians, newts become more active and come out of hiding when it rains, but unlike other salamander species they will venture out during the day.

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Adult newts eat a variety of organisms, including insects, slugs, worms, and even amphibian eggs and larvae.

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Protected by powerful tertrodotoxins, the Rough-skinned Newt is the most poisonous amphibian in the Pacific Northwest. One contains enough poison to kill 25,000 mice.

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Zigzag Salamander

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While visiting Snake Road in southern Illinois, I came across this “lifer” amphibian which I’ve never seen “in person” before. It reminded me of a smaller version of a Redback Salamander that is common in my area of Ohio. Its body color is dark grey with a red or orangish wavy pattern, or “zigzag,” extending from the neck down the back to the base of the tail where it straightens out.

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This species is part of a large group known as Lungless Salamanders. They have no lungs and breathe through their skin and mouth. This unique trait requires them to keep the surface of their skin moist at all times. Females lay their eggs deep in underground cavities and guard their eggs until hatching. The baby salamanders do not go through an aquatic larval stage. Instead, when young salamanders emerge from their eggs they look like miniature versions of adults.

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Zigzag Salamanders inhabit temperate forests, rocky areas and caves. They have a preference for moist, rocky slopes. There they hunt for spiders and beetles, which comprise most of their diet. This is one of the smallest salamanders in the United States, reaching only about three inches in total length.

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Central Newt

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I often see this amphibian on my visits to southern Illinois. Sometimes it is out and about (especially during rainy weather), sometimes it is found hiding under logs and sometimes I see it in the water (especially at night when walking around the edges of ponds).

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They look similar to the Eastern Newts that I find in my home state of Ohio, with olive backs covered in black spots and sporting a bright yellow belly. Two rows of small red spots may be present along the back, though in some cases this little salamander lacks the red spots entirely.

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The Central Newt’s habitat is woodland ponds, swamps and occasionally water-filled ditches. Its diet consists of small aquatic invertebrates such as worms, mollusks, insects and crayfish. They may also eat tadpoles and the larvae of other salamanders.

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In the Spring, adults mate and females lay their eggs in water. The eggs hatch out into one-half inch tadpole-like larva. Like the Eastern Newt, the Central Newt has a land dwelling “eft” stage that spends 2 to 3 years wandering the forest floor before returning to water and leading a primarily aquatic life.

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After completing their aquatic larval stage, efts emerge onto land in Autumn. Their skin as an eft is rough, rather than smooth, like most salamanders. Their skin becomes smooth again when they become adults and return to the water. It is thought that the eft stage allows them to investigate new territories to spread to.

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Efts are bright orange to advertise that they are toxic to most predators. The Central Newt produces toxins in all its life stages, but the toxin is strongest during its eft stage. Their poison is tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin, which makes this species unpalatable to predatory fish and crayfish.

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Although usually only about four inches in total length, these creatures have a surprisingly long lifespan of well over 10 years in the wild.

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Pacific Giant Salamander

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While visiting Van Damme State Park in California, I came across one of the world’s largest land-dwelling salamanders, it reaches up to 13 inches in total length. These salamanders have a relatively large head, body and legs. Their smooth skin usually has tan, gold, or grey mottling on top of a dark brown, reddish-brown, or grey background.

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While Pacific Giant Salamanders start their life as entirely aquatic larva, with gills that allow them to breathe under water, most of their time as adults is spent beneath logs, bark or stones, either on a streambed or on land, though they will roam about freely after heavy rains.

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Pacific Giant Salamanders are found in a variety of habitats, but most live in the forest, near cool, clear, mountain streams. Mature and old-growth forests with plenty of litter, downed wood and talus are preferred habitats.

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These robust-skulled amphibians are equipped with blade-like teeth. They are well known for their ability to prey on small salamanders as well as rodents and small snakes.

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While most salamanders are silent, the Pacific Giant Salamander is one of several salamanders that have vocal abilities. When startled, these amphibians may respond with a low-pitched growl or bark. It was rewarding to come across this cool creature.

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Ensatinas belong to a family known as Lungless Salamanders. Oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange occurs through their moist skin.

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Adults can reach an overall length of about 6 inches, but are usually smaller. There are seven subspecies, all of which can be found in California.


Their main habitat is forested areas, where they seek seclusion beneath fallen trees and rocks. During cool, cloudy, moist, rainy or damp, foggy days, these little amphibians often are out and about during daylight hours.


One distinct characteristic of Ensantinas is constriction at the base of the tail. If severely stressed, either by environmental factors or a predator, the salamander discards its tail at the point of this constriction.


This species is also known to secrete milky alkaline toxins from glands in the tail which are extremely distasteful and irritable to most predators. Like most salamanders, they eat a wide variety of invertebrates.

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There is a lot of variety in coloration, but almost all have orange or yellow coloring on the tops of their legs. Ensatinas also appear to have over-sized heads with large, expressive eyes.

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It’s always a pleasure to come across one of these cool creatures in the field, and I found a few on my last visit to California.

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Arboreal Salamander

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This species is found both on the ground as well as in trees. On the ground it often hides in logs and stumps or beneath bark and rocks. I enjoy coming across this amphibian when I visit California. Here’s one that I found yesterday.

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It is also well known for its climbing abilities. “Back in the day” many individuals were found on the University of California Campus at Berkeley occupying cavities in trees, some at a height of 30 feet above the ground. This is a juvenile that I encountered this week (the rest of the photos in this post are from previous visits to California).

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This is a fairly big salamander (the largest examples reach 7 inches, including the tail) with a large head and angular jaws. The eyes are prominent. Its stout legs undoubtably aid it in scaling trees. It is often chocolate-brown in color and sprinkled with pale yellow spots.

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This is one of the very few salamanders with vocal abilities. When handled it may bite and squeak.

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The Arboreal Salamander is mostly nocturnal and eats insects such as crickets and termites (as well as other invertebrates) found underneath leaf litter at night. These are lungless salamanders that breathe through their skin, so they are restricted to areas with plenty of moisture.

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Not only do these amphibians have a interesting “look” to them, but their unique lifestyle makes them and enjoyable herp to find and observe in the wild.

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