Salamander sleuthing

Turning over rocks helps conservation efforts of secretive species

a close up of a salamander.

Salamander surveys enable the Service to work with partners to conserve and protect these sensitive amphibians from threats that could put them at risk. Pictured here is one of the three species of Shasta salamander found only around Shasta Lake in California. Credit: USFWS

By Susan Sawyer
May 12, 2021

a salamander on a rock.

Hide and seek is the name of the game when surveying for salamanders in Northern California and Southern Oregon. This Siskiyou Mountains salamander was randomly discovered when its cover rock was moved. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

On a chilly, rainy day in Northern California, a 3-inch-long web-footed salamander crawls out of a rock crevice, its sticky toes clinging to an outcrop on a forested slope. While most cold-blooded animals are dormant in cooler weather, several species of salamanders are the exception to this amphibian ‘rule’ and actually require these conditions to become active above ground.

Ranging from Shasta Lake to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California and Southern Oregon, the Shasta, Siskiyou Mountains and Scott Bar salamanders live similar lifestyles. All of these salamanders are lungless, needing moist conditions to breathe through their skin. They spend both cold winters and hot, dry summers hiding under logs, deep within rock crevices, or inside limestone or other rocky caves. They only become active above ground most often at night during short periods in the late fall and spring, and during the winter when temperatures are above freezing, and humidity is high.

For these thin, nimble amphibians, their choice of living quarters is ideal. However, it is a challenge for larger life forms, such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists conducting field surveys for these secretive salamanders. Jennifer Jones, a Service biologist in the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office noted that salamander surveying is not a glamorous job either.

“Biologists slowly walk hunched over, carefully lifting wet, slippery moss-covered talus rock where salamanders are most likely to be hiding,” said Jones. “The surveys are often done when it’s wet and cold, like a very damp Easter egg hunt, except the reward is turning over a rock and finding one of these elusive amphibians.”

a man bending over looking under a rock.

A biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey carefully lifts a rock in search of the secretive amphibians that prefer to remain deep inside rock crevices, caves, under forest floor litter or logs, which makes surveying for them all that more challenging. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

In 2006, as part of ongoing conservation efforts, the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office embarked on a long-term field study of the Scott Bar and southern population of the Siskiyou Mountains salamanders. The purpose was to collect data on the number, age and body condition of these two species at sites across their range in California. The Yreka office worked with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, private timber companies, USDA-Forest Service and Redwood Sciences Lab to design the study and collect data.

During the study, a total of 558 Siskiyou Mountains and 565 Scott Bar salamanders were detected at 56 study sites. Humboldt State University and the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office are currently analyzing the survey results.

One becomes three

In 2018, the Shasta salamander was divided and categorized as three species: the Shasta, Wintu and Samwel, collectively called the ‘Shasta Salamander Complex.’ The populations of these species are genetically diverse because they don’t travel far, with individuals likely to spend their entire life in a rock outcrop or cave no bigger than a tennis court.

a hand holding a salamander.

The reward of many deep knee squats and bending over lifting rocks in the forest - finding one of these small docile creatures on a survey. Photo courtesy of Len Lindstrand III/Sierra Pacific Industries

These three salamanders have the smallest range of any Pacific Northwest amphibian – about 792,000 acres - or an area slightly smaller than Rhode Island. They are found only in Shasta County, an ecologically diverse area with a unique geology untouched by volcanoes, earthquakes and other similar geological events common throughout California.

In 2019, biologists from the Yreka office and the U.S. Geological Survey braved wet weather, lots of poison oak and steep, slippery terrain to search for these cryptic creatures.

Dr. Brian Halstead, USGS research wildlife biologist heading the survey efforts, used occupancy models to better pinpoint Shasta salamander distributions.

“Occupancy models must consider false absences, which is when surveys don't detect salamanders even though they’re present,” said Halstead. “It is important to understand what affects salamander activity and the certainty that we are finding these unique amphibians.”

a woman outside writing on a clipboard.

Jen Jones, Service biologist in the Yreka office records data in Siskiyou County during what she calls ‘not the most glamorous job’ because of the conditions in which salamander surveys are conducted. Credit: Jamie Bettaso/U.S. Forest Service

They surveyed areas recommended by the Service and other experts through a rapid assessment process where prior surveys had not been completed. The goal was to refine survey protocols and analyze the probability of detecting these species across their range.

The surveys provided information instrumental in the April 2021 decision by the Service not to list the Shasta complex of salamanders under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The results of the USGS surveys and detection probability data for the three Shasta salamander species helped us in our assessment of threats,” said Christine Jordan, Yreka biologist. “The Service was able to determine that some threats to individual salamanders will not severely impact any of the three species.”

Surveys enable agencies to collaborate and develop strategies that effectively manage landscapes where species live. These strategies enhance and strengthen partnerships and are an important tool that can help keep species from needing protection under the Endangered Species Act.

four salamanders under a rock.

An adult, left and two juvenile Wintu salamanders in center share space with a black salamander under a pine needle and moss covered rock in the forest. These salamanders spend their entire lives on land, and don’t have an aquatic life stage. Females lay eggs that hatch into miniature versions of the adults. Photo courtesy of Len Lindstrand III/Sierra Pacific Industries

The Service continues to work with partners to conserve and protect native species like the Shasta Salamander Complex, Siskiyou Mountains and Scott Bar salamanders and their habitats to prevent future threatened or endangered listing actions.

“These partnerships allowed us to fill knowledge gaps about salamander abundance and populations,” said Jordan. “Studies such as these can provide a better understanding of habitat needs and help guide the future management of these unique and secretive species.”


Story Photo

Susan Sawyer

About the writer...

Susan Sawyer is the Klamath Basin public affairs officer, covering the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Klamath Falls and Yreka Fish and Wildlife Offices. She was raised in the California desert gaining a deep appreciation of the outdoors on family vacations to the Pacific coast, Sierras and Redwood forests.

She has worked in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Idaho and now Oregon, where she spends her free time landscaping for wildlife, continuing to learn from and about nature and spoiling her animals.

More stories by Susan: