Field Guide to Amphibians
of Southern California
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Yellow-Blotched Salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater)
Yellow-blotched salamanders are known to occur in the Tehachapi mountains and extends into the Los Padres National Forest in the vicinity of Mount Pinos, Frazier Mountain and Alamo Mountain (Jennings and Hayes 1994). Potential habitat close to the known range of this subspecies exists on Liebre and Sawmill Mountains on the Angeles National Forest (Stephenson and Calcarone 1999).
Ensatina is a geographically and genetically variable taxon that has traditionally been treated as a single species with seven recognized subspecies. The subspecies include both blotched and unblotched color forms. Ensatina has also traditionally been treated as a "ring" species, whose subspecies form a ring-shaped distribution around the Central Valley of California and do not interbreed where the ends of the ring overlap in southern California (Stebbins 1949, Wake and Yanev 1986).
Yellow-blotched salamanders occur in open woodlands dominated by black oak (Quercus kelloggii), blue oak (Q. douglasii), and gray pine (Pinus sabiniana) and in open forests dominated by Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi), ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa), and white fir (Abies concolor). They are also common in canyons among litter and debris from canyon live oaks (Q. chrysolepis) and extend onto slopes supporting California scrub oaks (Q. dumosa) and deerbrush (Ceanothus sp.) (Jennings and Hayes 1994). Colonies of Ensatina salamanders seem best developed in marginal belts between dense and sparse vegetation, that is, in "edge" situations (Stebbins 1951). Downed logs, leaf litter, and woody debris appear to be important habitat elements (Stebbins 1951). Ensatinas are commonly found in areas with considerable leaf litter, which serves as an insulating blanket to help conserve moisture and to buffer temperature fluctuations (Stebbins 1951). Populations of ensatinas in drier regions of southern California primarily occur on north-facing slopes of deep canyons and in other microhabitats that provide cool, moist conditions. Ensatinas are frequently found near streams where soils are relatively moist, or in shaded, moist habitats where there is good canopy cover (Stebbins 1945, 1951).
If yellow-blotched salamander conforms to the patterns of other Ensatina salamanders, mating occurs in February and March. The male and female perform a complex mating ritual that results in the female picking up a spermatophore (Stebbins 1951). Females oviposit in late spring in central and southern coastal populations, and in early summer in northern coastal areas (Norman 1986) and higher elevation sites in the Sierra Nevada (Stebbins 1951). Each female lays a single cluster of eggs in an underground passage, beneath bark, or in or beneath logs. The female stays with the eggs, protecting them from drying and from other animals. The young hatch in the fall and must soon fend for themselves (Stebbins 1959).
The species is nocturnal and difficult to see near the surface, so it could be more widespread than current data suggest. Juveniles and adults are most active when the ground is wet and temperatures are moderate (Stebbins 1951, Storer 1925). Ensatinas remain underground throughout the dry summer in most areas of their range and can tolerate substantial dehydration (Stebbins 1945). During dry weather, they tend to frequent holes in the ground such as rodent burrows, rotted-out root channels, and openings among rocks (Stebbins 1951). Except in areas where severe winter weather occurs, ensatinas emerge with the first rains of autumn and are active on the ground through spring. Surface activity is highest immediately following rains and continues while temperature and moisture conditions are favorable (Stebbins 1951).
Diet and Foraging
Insects, spiders, crustaceans, and earthworms that occur in and beneath the leaf litter serve as food for these salamanders. Most feeding occurs above ground when the surface is damp and temperatures are not too high (Stebbins 1951). The principle prey of 45 specimens from southern California were isopods, centipedes, spiders, collembolans, and beetles (Zweifel 1949).
Garter snakes (Thamnophis sp.) and Steller's jays (Cyanocitta cristata) prey upon Ensatinas (Beneski 1989, Stebbins 1954). Snakes often gape repeatedly after eating or attempting to eat ensatinas, a behavior suggesting that the tail secretions are distasteful and serve to repel potential predators (Storer 1925).
Beneski, J.T., Jr. 1989. Adaptive significance of tail autotomy in the salamander, Ensatina. Journal of Herpetology 23: 322–324.
Jennings, M.R.; Hayes, M.P. 1994. Amphibian and reptile species of special concern in California. Rancho Cordova, CA: California Department of Fish and Game, Inland Fisheries Division.
Norman, B.R. 1986. Ensatina eschscholtzii oregonenesis (Oregon ensatina) reproduction. Herpetological Review 17: 89.
Petranka, J.W. 1998. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Washington: Smithsonian Institution and Press.
Stebbins, R.C. 1945. Water absorption in a terrestrial salamander. Copeia 1945: 25–28.
Stebbins, R.C. 1949. Speciation in salamanders of the plethodontid genus Ensatina. University of California Publications in Zoology 48: 377–526.
Stebbins, R.C. 1951. Amphibians of western North America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Stebbins, R.C. 1954. Natural history of the salamanders of the plethodontid genus Ensatina. University of California publications in zoology 54: 47-124.
Stebbins, R.C. 1959. Reptiles and amphibians of the San Francisco bay region. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Stebbins, R.C.; Cohen, N.W. 1995. A natural history of amphibians. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stephenson, J. R.; Calcarone, G.M. 1999. Southern California mountains and foothills assessment: Habitat and species conservation issues. General Technical Report PSW-GTR-172. Albany, CA: Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Storer, T.I. 1925. A synopsis of the amphibia of California. University of California Publications in Zoology 27: 1–342.
Wake, D.B.; Schneider, C.J. 1998. Taxonomy of the plethodontid salamander genus Ensatina. Herpetologica 54: 279–298.
Wake, D.B.; Yanev, K.P. 1986. Geographic variation in allozymes in a "ring species," the plethodontid salamander Ensatina eschscholtzii of western North America. Evolution 40: 702–715.
Wiltenmuth, E.B. 1996. Agonistic and sensory behaviour of the salamander Ensatina eschscholtzii during asymmetric contests. Animal Behaviour 52: 841–850.
Zweifel, R.G. 1949. Comparison of food habits of Ensatina eschscholtzii and Aneides lugubris. Copeia 1949: 285–287.
Information gathered from California DFG - California Interagency Wildlife Task Group