Larch Mountain salamander (Plethodon larselli)

Closeup of a Larch Mountain salamander on mossy ground; a dull-orange stripe shows along its back, from head to tail.
Note the dorsal stripe (yellow in this case) from head to tail on this adult. (William Leonard)
Category: Amphibians
State status: Sensitive
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate-
High

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting tool or email us at  wildlife.data@dfw.wa.gov. Be sure to include a photo of the species for verification and location (latitude/longitude coordinates) of your observation. 

The Larch Mountain salamander is a small, lungless salamander found only in Washington and Oregon. In Washington, the state's "Sensitive" status for this salamander is based on the small global range, narrow environmental specificity, and concern that there is not adequate protection for its specialized habitat of rocky accumulations and talus.

Any ground-disturbing activity or land use that changes the moisture regimes and permeability of inhabited rocky substrates, such as over-story tree removal and gravel removal, may threaten populations. In addition, the sedentary habits and specific habitat requirements likely hinder dispersal and colonization to new areas as well as limiting gene flow between populations.

Description and Range

Physical description

The Larch Mountain salamander is a small, striped salamander (less than 2 inches snout to vent length). The color on the sides is black or dark brown with white speckling and there may be flecks of the dorsal stripe color. The dorsal stripe is reddish, yellowish, brown or tan, and has a scalloped edge and extends to the tip of the tail. The underside is characteristically salmon-pink, red or reddish orange but a small number of individuals have white or gray undersides.

See the Washington Herp Atlas for more information about this species. 

Close up of a Larch Mountain salamander on a rock surface.
Adult Larch Mountain salamander with a red dorsal stripe - found in Skamania County. William Leonard

Ecology and life history

Larch Mountain salamanders are associated with talus, scree, gravelly soils and other areas of accumulated rock where interstitial spaces exist between the rock and soil. Steep slopes are also an important habitat feature. This species inhabits a diverse range of forested and non-forested habitats.

Occupied rocky substrates in non-forested areas are usually north facing, and nonvascular plants, especially mosses, dominate the ground cover. In some areas of the Cascade Mountains, Larch Mountain salamanders inhabit old-growth coniferous forests without significant exposed rocky areas. They also inhabit lava tubes in the Mount St. Helens vicinity.

In all of these habitats, important microhabitats include woody debris, leaf litter, and rocks.

Larch Mountain salamanders spend most of their lives in the subterranean environment, only being surface-active about 20 to 90 days per year. Surface activity is triggered whenever moisture and temperature regimes are appropriate, primarily in the spring and fall.

Breeding takes place in the autumn and spring months. No nests have been found. Development of larvae takes place in the egg, and there is no free-living aquatic larval stage.

Sexual maturity is reached at 3 to 3.5 years and 4 to 4.5 years for males and females respectively. Larch Mountain salamanders are predators on a variety of invertebrates.

The movements are poorly documented, but it is clear that home ranges tend to be only 10 to 100 feet in diameter. These salamanders are lungless and depend on moist skin surfaces for oxygen uptake.

Geographic range

The Larch Mountain salamander is native to Washington and northern Oregon. The main distribution is along a 34-mile stretch of the Columbia River Gorge in southern Washington and northern Oregon, and discontinuously northward in the Cascades in the Snoqualmie Pass-Kachess Lake area.

For maps of range-wide distribution and conservation status, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate-
High

Sensitivity of Larch Mountain salamanders to climate change is likely driven by its specialized habitat requirements (i.e., prefers forested talus environments). This species also exhibits physiological sensitivity to temperature and precipitation, seeking out suitable microclimates (e.g., active at the surface during periods of high humidity and moderate temperature) as needed. Warmer and drier conditions could negatively affect this species through reduction of the seasonal window when the species is near-surface active and possibly localized loss of suitable habitat, and/or population isolation (i.e., due to a reduction in the time window for dispersal or if extreme, the inability to disperse)., and/or Ddirect mortality (e.g., because they depend on moist skin surfaces for oxygen uptake) is less likely because the species avoid unfavorable near surface conditions by retreating to the subterranean habitat, and would only be expected to occur if localized conditions resulted in drought so extreme that subterranean retreats would dry out enough to cause mortality in retreat sites. Climate change that results in increased rainfall, as has probably been observed recently, has highly uncertain consequences for Larch Mt. Salamander, that range from positive via creating of new habitat in talus matrices to negative where talus habitat is mobilized and space filling of matrices occurs or animals are crushed; what actually happens may depend on local conditions.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation >Changes in talus mobility linked to changes in precipitation
Confidence: Moderate

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.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Lack of information on status and distribution.
    • Action Needed: Continue research, surveys and monitoring to understand species distribution and status.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss and degradation
    • Threat: Removal of trees. This small, non-vagile (non-dispersing) species needs cool, moist conditions.
    • Action Needed: Prevent habitat modification at sites occupied by Larch Mountain salamanders.
  • Energy development and distribution
    • Threat: Mining of rock and boulders. This small, non-vagile species is closely associated with rock features such as talus.
    • Action Needed: Prevent habitat modification at sites occupied by Larch Mountain salamanders.
  • Climate change and severe weather
    • Threat: Loss of suitable habitat. This small, non vagile species needs moist conditions and is closely associated with rock features such as talus. Surface activity is limited by moisture and temperature.
    • Action Needed: Prevent habitat modification at sites occupied by Larch Mountain salamanders.
    • Threat: Drying of habitat. Surface activity is limited by moisture and temperature (fall and spring). These salamanders are lungless and depend on moist skin surfaces for oxygen uptake.
    • Action Needed: Prevent habitat modification at sites occupied by Larch Mountain salamanders.
    • Threat: Warming and drying of habitat. This small, non-vagile species needs moist conditions. Surface activity is limited by moisture and temperature (fall and spring). These salamanders are lungless and depend on moist skin surfaces for oxygen uptake.

See Climate vulnerability section above for more information about the threat posed by climate change to Larch Mountain salamanders.

Resources

WDFW Publications