Cope's giant salamander (Dicamptodon copei)

Close up of a Cope's giant salamander on mossy ground
This Cope's giant salamander was found in the Columbia River Gorge. Note that gills are present. (Brad M. Glorioso, U.S. Geological Survey)
Category: Amphibians
Family: Dicamptodontidae - Giant salamanders
Ecosystems: Riparian areas
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate-
High

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

This salamander occurs in western Washington and Oregon, and is at risk. Main concerns for this species are land uses that contribute to stream sedimentation or elevated stream temperatures. 

Cope's giant salamanders require cold-water streams with rocky bottoms in moist forests. Genetic research also indicates that these salamanders are dispersal limited, so being confined to relatively small stretches of streams makes them vulnerable. 

Description and Range

Physical description

Cope's giant salamanders are medium-sized, marbled gold and brown salamanders with a rounded snout, indistinct costal grooves, and a laterally compressed tail. Adults reach a total length of 7.5 inches (snout to vent is 4.5 inches). Metamorphosed forms are rare; almost all individuals found are larval salamanders.

Terrestrial forms

Metamorphosed giant salamanders are easily distinguished from all other Washington salamanders by the marbled pattern on the head and dorsal surface. The traits that distinguish the two giant salamander species are subtle. The Cope’s giant salamander is smaller, has a narrower head, and shorter legs. The first two traits require experience to discern the differences between the two species. To determine relative leg length, the forelimbs are gently pressed backward against the body and the hind limbs are pressed forward against the body (adpressed legs). The toes will not touch or cross in the Cope’s giant salamander but will with the Pacific giant salamander.  

Larvae

Larvae are stream-type with short gills and a low tail fin that ends on the body near the hind limbs. The tips of the digits are black and hard (cornified). Larvae are light brown with minimal dark mottling above. The ventral surface (underside) is white in small larvae (less 2 inches snout to vent length) and bluish gray in larger individuals. Granular clusters of tan to yellow pigmentation are present on surfaces of the dorsal (topside) and lateral (sides) of the salamander. The average size at maturity is 2.6 to 3 inches snout to vent length.

Of stream-type larvae, the torrent salamanders (Rhyacotriton species) can be easily distinguished by their orange ventral coloration and tiny gills that are barely visible when the salamander is out of water.

Differentiating Cope’s giant salamander larvae from Pacific giant salamander larvae is challenging, especially for smaller larvae (less than 2 inches snout to vent length). Range differences can be used; only Cope’s giant salamander is found on the Olympic Peninsula north of the Chehalis River. Species identification based on location should be indicated in field notes or data submitted to museums or databases.

For larvae 2 inches snout to vent length or greater, the following traits can be used to determine species. The head of Cope’s giant salamander is similar in width at the base and snout and the head width is less than 1/5 the snout to vent length. Toes do not touch or overlap when legs are adpressed against the body. The tan to yellowish pigmentation on the dorsal surface of the body is clustered into spots and blotches. Whereas the Pacific giant salamander has tan to yellowish pigmentation present in indistinct streaks as if someone painted it on the surface with a dry brush.

Eggs

The eggs are white (unpigmented), laid singly and attached to the nest wall by short pedicels.

For more details, see the Washington Herp Atlas.

Ecology and life history

Cope's giant salamanders are primarily associated with small to medium-sized mountain streams in moist coniferous forests. These salamanders require cold-water streams with rocky bottoms in moist forests. The spaces between and under the rocks are used by the salamanders for shelter and places to lay eggs. They almost always mature in the larval form and become gilled adults that remain in the streams.

They are often the dominant vertebrate within streams. During the day, they are typically concealed under rocks or woody debris, but they can occasionally be observed moving about in the stream.

Most Cope's giant salamanders become sexually mature in the larval stage. The average size at maturity is 2.6 to 3 inches snout to vent length. Similar to other giant salamander species, most activity is probably nocturnal, and much time is spent in subterranean microhabitats.

Metamorphosed forms are extremely rare. Larval forms tend to be common, and they can be observed year-round in flowing water bodies. They may also be present in higher elevation still-water habitats connected to flowing water bodies.  Larvae and gilled adults can be observed day or night in streams.

Breeding takes place in the spring, summer, and fall, with peak activity in the spring and fall. The female guards the eggs for 200 days or more until they hatch. The larval stage is permanent for most individuals with sexual maturity occurring in the larval form (paedomorphosis). Average size at maturity is 2.5 to 3 inches snout to vent length but may not take place until the larvae reach 4.5 inches snout to vent length.

Geographic range

Cope's giant salamander is found in western Washington and extreme northwestern Oregon. In Washington, these salamanders occur primarily west of the Cascade Crest in the Pacific Coast, southern Puget Trough, and West Cascades ecoregions. They are the only giant salamander documented north of the Chehalis River in the Olympic Peninsula.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of the Cope's giant salamander in Washington as of 2016. 

Cope's giant salamander distribution map of Washington: all southwest and Olympic Peninsula counties plus Skamania
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For maps of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServer Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Redlist

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate-
High

Cope's giant salamanders appear sensitive to temperature and precipitation factors that cause microhabitat desiccation as well as high flow events that degrade aquatic habitat. Elevated temperatures (although one study has shown these salamanders may tolerate a wider temperature range), increased solar radiation, and moisture loss, as well as declines in stream flow that reduce aquatic habitats, will likely negatively affect this species. Additionally, the salamander's occurrence in rain-on-snow transient zones makes it particularly sensitive to rain-on-snow events that result in high flow events and increased sedimentation. Cope's is typically a neotenic form, that is thougth to rarely transform; however, observations made in the Willapa Hills suggest that massive transformation can occur with stream drying in drought years, so Cope's may be capable of responding to years with stream drying; how flexible that response is is highly uncertain.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate-
High

  • Increased temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation
  • Shifts from snow to rain
  • Range contractions are projected for the southern Cascades ecoregion, with possible expansions in the northern Cascades and/or low-mid elevation southern coastal streams.
Confidence: Moderate

Regulations

Licenses and permits

Be advised that collection of this species is only permitted under a WDFW Scientific Collection Permit for research and educational activities.

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Resource management needs
    • Threat: Lack of information. Local declines and extirpations may have occurred but lack of documentation is available.
    • Action Needed: Assess population.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss and degradation
    • Threat: Loss of riparian vegetation that results in elevated stream temperatures, erosion and increased sedimentation. This species requires cool water temperatures and microhabitats, such as the spaces between rocks and logs that are used as sheltering, hiding and nesting sites.
    • Action Needed: Protect riparian buffers around occupied streams.

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about threats posed by climate change to this species.

Genetic research indicates this species is dispersal limited. Being confined to relatively small stretches of streams makes them vulnerable.

Resources

References

Bury, R.B. and P.S. Corn. 1988. Responses of aquatic and streamside amphibians to timber harvest: a review. In: Streamside management: riparian wildlife and forestry interactions. K.J. Raedeke, ed. Institute of Forestry Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, Contribution 59:165-181.

Corn PS, and R. B. Bury. 1989. Logging in western Oregon: responses of headwater habitats and stream amphibians. Forest Ecology and Management 29:39–57.

Leonard, W. P., H. A. Brown, L. L. C. Jones, K. R. McAllister and R. M. Storm. 1993. Amphibians of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society The Trailside Series, Seattle, Washington. 169 pp.

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie, Jr., and R.M. Storm. 1983. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 332 pp.

Petranka, J. W. 1998. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 587 pp.

Personal communications

Aimee Macintyre, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.

Larry Jones, Wildlife, Fish, and Rare Plants, Coronado National Forest, Tucson, Arizona.

WDFW publications

Hallock, L. A. and K. R. McAllister. 2009. Cope’s Giant Salamander. Washington Herp Atlas. 2009. A cooperative effort of Washington Natural Heritage Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S.D.I. Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service. Map products updated March 2017. Provisional PDF version of the website (2005-2019) created July 2019. 250 pp. 

WDFW educational resources

Other resources