The Long-toed Salamander is medium-length, slender salamander that grows to 8-12 cm in total length with 12 costal grooves. They have an oval head with large, bulging eyes, and a blunt snout. They are generally dark gray or black with golden speckling, and a yellow-green stripe that runs from the head to the tip of the tail that may be patchy or have uneven edges. The Long-toed Salamander gets its name for the particularly long fourth toe on each hind foot. Long-toed Salamander larvae are a translucent grey or light brown with dark flecks and silvery bellies. The head is large and usually one-third of the body length with large feathery gills that stick out to the sides.
The Long-toed Salamander may easily be confused with the Western Red-backed Salamander and the Coeur d’Alene Salamander. Both of these species lack long toes on the hind feet and are generally slenderer than the Long-toed Salamander. The Western Red-backed Salamander also has a smooth-edged red dorsal stripe, as opposed to the irregular or uneven yellow-green or orange-green edges of the Long-toed Salamander dorsal stripe. Of the 3 subspecies found in British Columbia, it is most easy to differentiate between them based on location. However, only the Northern Long-toed Salamander has a dorsal stripe that continues onto the head.
Credit: Joe Crowley
Credit: Joe Crowley
Western Red-backed Salamander
Credit: Ryan Gill
Coeur d’Alene Salamander
Long-toed Salamanders have a broad distribution in North America, ranging from southern Alaska, through British Columbia (including the Rocky Mountains), south to Oregon and Northern California, and southeast to Idaho and Montana. There are 5 recognized subspecies of Long-toed Salamander, 3 of which are found in British Columbia:
Western Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum macrodactylum) – lower Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island
Northern Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum krausei) – southeastern B.C., Rocky Mountains
Eastern Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum columbianum) – the rest of B.C.
Long-toed Salamanders occupy a wide variety of habitats ranging from seal level to over 2400 m elevation. They have been observed in temperate rainforests, coniferous forests, montane riparian areas, sagebrush plains, red fir forests, semi-arid sagebrush, cheatgrass plains, and alpine meadows near mountain lakes. Generally, Long-toed Salamanders are associated with damp areas in forests and meadows where there is abundant cover habitat near water. Ideal breeding habitats are large, shallow lakes and ponds with boggy edges devoid of predatory fish. Much of the life of a Long-toed Salamander is spent underground, and abandoned mammal burrows or natural crevices and hollows are important features, as they are not skilled diggers and they require subterranean habitat for overwintering beneath the frost line.
In British Columbia, Long-toed Salamanders may be the earliest breeding amphibian, as they may migrate across snow to deposit eggs before ice has completely receded. Mating occurs in aquatic habitats. The male will swim ahead of the female and deposit a packet of sperm that the female will collect with her. The female will then deposit up to 400 eggs underwater near the shoreline. Eggs are laid either individually or in small clusters of up to 30, often attached to vegetation. The eggs are brown on top and creamy below, with a double membrane and a thick jelly coat. Larvae will hatch within 2-3 weeks depending on the water temperature. The larvae grow very quickly, and once they grow to about 7 cm they will metamorphose into a terrestrial juvenile form. Upon metamorphosis, Long-toed Salamanders absorb their fins and gills, and respire with internal lungs. They will reach sexual maturity after 2-5 years in the terrestrial stage. At high elevations where water is cold and development is prolonged, the larvae may overwinter in breeding ponds and metamorphose the following summer. The lifespan of Long-toed Salamanders is 6-10 years.
Adult Long-toed Salamanders feed on insects, tadpoles, worms, beetles, and small fish. Long-toed Salamander larvae are very carnivorous and feed on insects, zooplankton, and other amphibian larvae and tadpoles.
In much of its range, habitat loss and fragmentation, as a result of urban development and logging, is the biggest threat to Long-toed Salamanders. Specific populations of subspecies, especially in more developed areas, may be particularly vulnerable to habitat disturbance. In northern latitudes and higher elevations, there remains relatively pristine habitat, especially for remote populations. Road mortality may be a substantial threat for some populations, particularly where roads bisect spring migrations routes from overwintering sites to breeding ponds. Pollution and toxins from agriculture and roads are a concern for salamanders as they easily absorb toxins through their skin. Introductions of predatory fish to areas where Long-toed Salamanders are established can rapidly decimate populations. Climate change and introduced pathogens may be serious future threats to Long-toed Salamanders in British Columbia.
Did You Know?
When threatened, Long-toed Salamanders will secrete a poison from granular glands on their back and tail. Small scars on the tail are often observed, as small predators will begin to nibble on the tail and quickly move on once they taste the poison. The tail is also an important fat reserve for Long-toed Salamanders and can help them survive through times when food is scarce.