Springtime in the Northeast usually means plenty of rain and the re-emergence of temporary pools — known as vernal pools — that form as water fills shallow depressions in forests, floodplains and meadows.
Vernal pools come to life as frogs, toads and salamanders converge on them to mate and lay eggs.
But there is a salamander, the Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah), whose life is quite different. As it name implies, the Shenandoah salamander is known to occur within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; specifically on only three mountains.
This rare salamander is a member of the family Plethodontidae or lungless salamanders that “breathe” through their skin. Respiration depends on the ability to maintain skin moisture, a characteristic that restricts the Shenandoah salamanders size to 3.5–4.5 inches in length.
The body is dark brown, with two colors phases. The striped color phase has a narrow red to yellow stripe down the center of the back. In the unstriped phase, the back is dark brown with scattered brass-colored flecks. In both phases, white or yellow spots occur along the sides.
This woodland salamander has no aquatic stage. It is generally found on northwest to northeast facing talus slopes 2,900 feet above sea level in forested conditions, where an overstory promotes surface moisture.
Primarily nocturnal, this salamander spends its days in rock crevices or under other objects.
Its diet includes mites, springtails, flies, small beetles and other soil invertebrates.
Breeding takes place in late spring or summer. In contrast with most salamanders, embryo development takes place within the egg. Small egg clusters, containing three to 17 eggs, are laid in damp logs, moss or other available crevices, where the females guard the eggs. Incubation lasts one to three months, during which time the female does not forage for food.
The Shenandoah salamander was federally listed as an endangered species on Sept. 18, 1987. Habitat modifications and forest fragmentation — most likely from timber harvesting, mining and recreational activities — were the biggest causes for its initial decline. But the park was established in the 1930s and within the park those activities ceased. Now, although its range falls entirely within the park, other threats continue to threaten the Shenandoah salamander.
Nonnative insects and diseases that defoliate or kill trees alter habitat for the salamander. Acid deposition can alter hydro-chemical conditions that the Shenandoah salamander needs. Recreational activities may also impact the salamander. Climate change and potential competition with the red-backed salamander, though, are the primary causes for its continued decline.
Use of the park (hiking, camping, trail maintenance, etc.) can also impact the salamander.
Biologists at Shenandoah National Park have initiated a study and monitoring effort with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to examine the distribution patterns of the Shenandoah salamander and identify the best management actions to ensure its persistence.
Monitoring is being conducted to further identify the species’ range and to characterize its abundance.
Work is also being done to minimize local potential impacts on the salamander, such as hiking and camping.
For information, go to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s website, www.pwrc.usgs.gov/NEARMI/researchmonitoring/ShenSal.cfm.