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Salamanders, Pacific Northwest

The Northwestern Salamander is a common sight in the Pacific Northwest
Northwestern Salamander, Photo By Robert Logan

The Pacific Northwest has 8 species of Salamanders and one newt. The salamanders are harmless, but the rough-skinned newt can be deadly. After handling the rough skin newt, it is advisable to wash your hands.

Rough skin newts can be found in the Pacific Northwest. They are also fairly large for a salamander, and adults can reach a maximum length of almost 22 cm from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. They are dark brown to grey on top and they are bright yellow below, this color serves as a warning to predators. When disturbed, the newt will curve its body upwards to display this bright coloring, predators have learned to leave this guy alone.

Rough skin newts can appear quite chubby compared to other salamanders, partly because they lack the grooves along the body that are present in most other salamander species.

Newt larvae are aquatic with ragged looking gills. Their body and limbs are less stocky looking than those of other salamander larvae within their range. Newt larvae are light brown colored with black flecks and a pink abdomen.

Rough skin newts live in both water and land habitats. They are most common in forested environments, living in and under rotting logs. Like most amphibians, newts become more active at the surface when it rains, but unlike other salamander species, they will venture out during the day. Newts migrate back to ponds, lakes, wetlands or slow-moving streams in the spring to breed, laying their eggs along shallow, vegetated shorelines. Cranberry Lake on Vancouver Island has a very large population of newts that return each year to mate. Some adults live in lakes or ponds year round and can often be seen swimming near the surface.

Rough Skinned Newt, Photo By Robert Logan
Rough-Skinned Newt, Photo By Robert Logan
Newts migrate to breeding ponds in spring. Like all native salamander species, newts have internal fertilization whereby the male releases a sperm packet that the female picks up. However, unlike most amphibians, newts lay single eggs attached to the stems of vegetation scattered throughout the breeding area. This egg scattering may be an advantage because newts eat amphibian eggs, even other newt eggs and the large populations of adults that can occur in some ponds and lakes would quickly deplete the pond of young newts. Newt eggs hatch 3 to 4 weeks after being laid, and the larvae morph into the adult form in the summer of either the first or second year depending on the local climate. The newly morphed newts head into upland forests, not returning to the pond to breed until a few years later. Newts may live as long as 12 years

Both adult and larval newts are carnivores. Adult newts eat a variety of organisms, including insects, slugs, worms, and even amphibian eggs and larvae. Newt larvae feast upon a variety of aquatic invertebrates and zooplankton.

Newts are quite poisonous and are thus avoided by most predators. This is why these salamanders are able to venture out during the day. Many dead birds and fish have been found with Rough Skin Newts in their stomachs, suggesting that eating a newt is a mistake these predators only make once. The Common Garter Snake, however, is apparently unaffected by the newt’s poison and is one of its major predators.

Rough Skinned Newt, Photo By Robert Logan
Rough-Skinned Newt, Photo By Robert Logan
The toxin that they produce is one of the most poisonous nonprotein substance known to scientists and similar to that found in puffer-fish that occasionally poison Japanese dinners. This very potent neuro-toxin acts by blocking sodium channels of excitable membranes. In other words, it blocks the conduction of nerve signals to the muscles. Blood vessels relax, leading to a sudden drop in blood pressure and shock. The toxin also blocks the signals from your brain that tell your heart to beat.

The rough skin newt is one of the most toxic animals known to science. One medical case involved a 29-year-old man who had been drinking heavily and swallowed a newt on a dare in Coos Bay, Oregon. Within a few hours, he was dead despite hospital treatment. In another case, the toxin from a newt entered a puncture wound on a scientist’s index finger and he suffered 30 minutes of numbness up to the arm into the shoulder and some accompanying nausea and light headiness. Another involves a camper who made coffee in the morning and a newt had crawled into the coffee pot during the night, the camper was dead later that day.

Rough skin Newts occur along the southwest coast of BC and Washington, on some Gulf Islands and throughout Vancouver Island.

Wandering Salamander, photo by Sean McCann
Wandering Salamander, photo by Sean McCann

The Wandering Salamander was originally only found in California, but now can be found on Vancouver Island.  They are not found in between these two locations. It seems that Vancouver Island gardeners who had purchased red bark that was packaged in California would unknowingly release these salamanders on Vancouver Island.  The name sure fits these little ones.

The Wandering Salamander feeds on a variety of small insects, including ants, mites, spiders, beetles, centipedes, and gastropods. As with most salamanders, the wandering salamander is a generalist feeder.

Young emerge from nests as fully formed juveniles. They will take 3 to 4 years to reach sexual maturity. Females reproduce every 2 or 3 years, eggs are deposited under rotting logs and stumps. Egg clutches have even been found under the bark of rotting trees.

Wandering salamanders typically live in old growth forests. They are agile climbers and can be found high up in trees. They will travel up into the trees at night, as high as 40 meters to feed on insects and gastropods, then return to the ground to find cover during the day.

Not very much is known about the population numbers of the Wandering Salamander on Vancouver Island. Its distribution is quite random in here.  The numbers do seem pretty consistent across their range, although declines have been noted on northern Vancouver Island, most likely due to logging.

Wandering Salamanders are most threatened by logging, which continues to alter and fragment habitats across Vancouver Island. Severe and prolonged droughts have become another major threat. These droughts are predicted to become more common over the coming years with climate change.  In addition, residential and other human developments continue to threaten local populations.

The Common Ensatina Salamander lives its whole life on the Pacific Northwest’s rain forest floor, where it spends its time in decaying logs, rotten stumps, woody debris, downed logs, and bark piles at the base of snags and is sometimes in woodpiles in peoples’ yards west of the Cascades. Inhabits moist shaded evergreen and deciduous forests. They are also found in Oak forests.

They can be found in an area stretching from British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon. They have even been seen in the Baja area in California

Common Ensatina Salamander, photo by Sean McCann
Common Ensatina Salamander, photo by Sean McCann

The Ensatina is a small slender salamander with total length up to 12 cm. The head and eyes appear to be too large for such a small salamander. Their limbs are relatively long. They are a light brown color, sometimes they have a slight pinkish hue when seen under certain lighting. The base of legs and the feet often have light flecking along to them.

Their eggs are well hidden in wet areas on the forest floor and seldom found, l have never seen them myself. They are 5 to 8 mm in diameter, whitish or cream-colored when newly laid and occur in clusters of up to about 25 eggs. The best way to find the nest is to follow the female, she will go to her nest when threatened and curl up around her eggs to protect them.

The young occupy the same habitats as adults, there is no aquatic larval stage. The young are small and very slender. They are mottled with black or dark grey, with lighter flecking, but lose the mottling as they grow. The bottom of each leg is bright yellow. They are beautiful little salamanders when they are young.

They all tend to look like lizards, but they are members of their own distinct group. There are differences to be seen,  lizards usually have external ears and clawed toes, salamanders lack such features.

A salamander is an amphibian in the order Caudata. Worldwide, this order encompasses hundreds of individual species and several large groupings.

Like other amphibians, they prefer damp, moist places such as swamps, ponds, and waterways. Salamanders range widely in size and coloration, but all of them have smooth, porous skins which may feel damp to the touch.

The Western Red Back Salamander is a very common salamander here in the Pacific Northwest
Western Red Back Salamander, Photo By Bud Logan



The Western Red Back Salamander can be found all over the pacific northwest from BC south to Southern Oregon. This salamander can be found under rocks and fallen wood, along stream banks and in well shaded, damp forests.

The western red back salamander has dark sides and a red, yellow, green or tan stripe down its back. It can be up to 10 cm in length.

These salamanders mate from November to December. Females lay eggs every other year. The female lays a clutch of about 10 eggs from April to May. Red back salamanders are born whole and reach sexual maturity in about 2 to 3 years. These salamanders live and breed entirely on land. They are nocturnal.

Western Red Back Salamanders are the most common salamander you will see in our forests. They are easy to recognize, with their black bodies and bright stripe down the middle of their backs. They can also have a yellow stripe, or even black with no stripe but usually, they have the stripe. Their bellies are always black and white.

Western Red Back Salamanders do not have lungs, even though they live on land. They breathe through their skin, which must be moist at all times.
Western Red Back Salamander, Photo By Bud Logan
Western Red Back Salamanders do not have lungs, even though they live on land. They breathe through their skin, which must be moist at all times. They come out from their hiding places at night after its rained. This is when they do most of their hunting.

These little salamanders are insectivores, although they will eat many invertebrates other than insects.  They are opportunistic in their feeding and will eat springtails, mites, earthworms, isopods, spiders, beetles, ants, and the list goes on. They hunt in a surprisingly small area, with home ranges of just a few square meters. The home range becomes more important during very dry times. Sometimes during extreme droughts, older salamanders will allow young from previous litters use their territories to survive.

They start out life as an aquatic larva hatched from an egg. The larvae have gills so that they can breathe underwater until they develop into adults with lungs.

Depending on the species, they may live a primarily aquatic life, or it may range far from water. As a general rule, they will avoid direct light, and many of them are nocturnal as a result.

These animals do not thrive well in dry conditions so most species need to keep their skins moist to promote general health and gas exchange. Because their skins are highly porous, salamanders are susceptible to environmental toxins and rough handling, best to observe but not touch these beautiful little creatures.

Rough Skinned Newt, Photo By Robert LoganRough Skinned Newt, Photo By Robert Logan

They can also carry bacteria that can be quite toxic. So it is a good idea to wash your hands after dealing with salamanders and newts. The newt is one to avoid even handling, they are really quite poisonous.

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