FWS Focus



The California tiger salamander is a large, stocky salamander with a broad, rounded snout. Adults average 6 to 9.5 inches (16 to 24 centimeters) in length and have random white or yellowish spots or bars against a black body. Their small eyes, which have black irises, protrude from their heads. Males are typically larger than females. 

The California tiger salamander is categorized into six populations, including:

  • Sonoma County
  • Santa Barbara County
  • The Bay Area
  • Central Valley
  • Southern San Joaquin Valley
  • The Central Coast Range.

However, these populations are treated as three distinct population segments that are genetically differentiated and geographically isolated from one another:

  • Sonoma County distinct population segment - listed as endangered
  • Santa Barbara County distinct population segment - listed as endangered
  • The Central California distinct population segment - listed as threatened

All California tiger salamanders are treated as Ambystoma californiense.Historically, California tiger salamanders were endemic to the San Joaquin-Sacramento river valleys, bordering foothills and coastal valleys of Central California.

Scientific Name

Ambystoma californiense
Common Name
California Tiger Salamander
FWS Category

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers



Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Color & Pattern

The California tiger salamander have random white or yellowish spots or bars against a black body.

Size & Shape

The California tiger salamander is a large, stocky salamander with a broad, rounded snout. Their small eyes, which have black irises, protrude from their heads. Males are typically larger than females.

Length: Adults average 6 to 9.5 in (16 to 24 cm)

Characteristic category



California tiger salamanders require access to both aquatic and upland habitat throughout their life cycle. They use standing bodies of fresh water, like ponds, vernal pools and other ephemeral or permanent water bodies for breeding. These bodies of water must hold water for a minimum of 12 weeks to support the salamander larvae development. The salamanders also need access to upland habitat that contains small animal burrows or underground hideaways, including those constructed by California ground squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi) and valley pocket gopher (Thommomys bottae). The California tiger salamander uses these underground burrows for shelter and protection from predators and desiccation during nonbreeding periods. The burrows are also good locations to find insects to eat.


Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.


Environments influenced by humans in a less substantial way than cities. This can include agriculture, silvaculture, aquaculture, etc.


Areas such as marshes or swamps that are covered often intermittently with shallow water or have soil saturated with moisture.

Characteristic category



The California tiger salamander is an opportunistic hunter throughout all stages of its life. As larvae, the salamander feeds on zooplankton, small crustaceans and aquatic insects, moving toward larger prey such as the tadpoles of Sierran tree frog (Pseudacris sierra), western spadefoot toads (Spea hammondii), and California red-legged frogs (Rana draytonii) as they grow. Invertebrate prey items found in adult salamander stomachs include aphids (Aphididae), wood cockroaches (Blattellidae), ground beetles (Carabidae), springtails (Collembola), centipedes (Cryptopidae, Lithobiidae, and Scolopendridae), true weevils (Curculionidae), webspinners (Embioptera), wasps, bees and ants (Hymenoptera), woodlice (Isopoda), silverfish (Lepismatidae), wolf spiders (Lycosidae), owlet moths (Noctuidae), harvestmen (Opiliones), crickets (Rhaphidophoridae), scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae), earthworms (Annelidae) and crane flies (Tipulidae). 

Characteristic category

Life Cycle


Adult California tiger salamanders leave their underground burrows and engage in mass migrations as they return to breeding ponds to mate during a few rainy nights per year. This mass migration is primarily from November through April. Males typically arrive before the females, and stay in the ponds longer than females. Males stay in ponds an average of 44.7 days, while females average 11.8 days in the ponds. The male deposits a spermatophore on the bottom of the pond, which the female picks up and uses to fertilize her eggs internally. Females then attach their eggs to twigs, grass stems or other vegetation or debris. The eggs hatch in 10 to 28 days into larvae. The larvae remain in the pond usually between three and six months, until they complete metamorphosis into juveniles. Once metamorphosis occurs, juveniles typically depart their birth ponds at night, primarily between May and July, and enter into upland habitat in search of underground burrows.

Hybridization with barred tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum mavortium) has become more common across California tiger salamander distinct population segments. The hybrids can produce viable and fertile offspring that exhibit higher survival rates than either pure California tiger salamanders or pure barred tiger salamanders. Hybrids and pure barred salamanders also prey on juvenile California tiger salamanders and outcompete individuals for food.

Life Span

California tiger salamanders can live between 10 to 15 years.



Today, the ranges of each distinct population segment have contracted from the historical range. 

  • The Central California distinct population segment is currently restricted to the Central Valley and Inner Coast Range, from Tulare and San Luis Obispo counties in the south to Sacramento, and Yolo counties in the north. This includes Alameda, Amador, Calaveras, Contra Costa, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Mateo, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Stanislaus, Solano and Tuolumne counties. 
  • The current core range of the California tiger salamander Sonoma County distinct population segment encompasses approximately 18,000 to 20,000 acres (7,284 to 8,094 hectares) of fragmented habitat in the Santa Rosa Plain of Sonoma County, California. 
  • The Santa Barbara County distinct population segment is endemic to the northern portion of Santa Barbara County in California.

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