Van Dyke's salamander (Plethodon vandykei)

Close up of a Van Dyke's salamander on moss
This woodland salamander breathes through its skin. (William Leonard)
Category: Amphibians
Family: Plethodontidae - Lungless salamanders
Ecosystems: Riparian areas
State status: Candidate
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 is at risk due to its limited distribution and apparently small, isolated populations. Its population trend is unknown.

Van Dyke's salamander is one of relatively few vertebrate species endemic to Washington.

Description and Range

Physical description

These salamanders are lungless and depend on moist skin surfaces for oxygen uptake. 

Close up of a dark-phase Van Dyke's salamander on moist moss.
This dark-phase Van Dyke's salamander adult was found in Pacific County. W.P. Leonard, Copyright

This species is a small, striped salamander, about 4 inches in length (about 2.5 inches from snout to vent). The color on the sides can be dark ("dark-phase"), dull yellow ("yellow-phase") or pinkish to red ("rose-phase") in adults. Collectively, the yellow- and red-phase (which may be difficult to distinguish) is known as "light-phase."

Juveniles are similar to adults but are always dark-phase, with a distinct yellow or reddish dorsal stripe.

The presence of nasolabial grooves (nose to mouth indentations) separates Lungless Salamanders from other types of salamanders.

Compared to our other woodland salamanders (Plethodon species), this species is relatively stocky and long legged. It has slightly webbed toes and inconspicuous parotoid glands. The costal groove count is usually 14. Sexual maturity is reached at about 1.8 inches snout to vent length.

Close up of a yellow-phase Van Dyke's salamander on  moist moss.
This yellow-phase Van Dyke's adult salamander was found in Pacific County. W.P. Leonard, Copyright

The following traits separate the Van Dyke's salamander from the other woodland salamanders (Plethodon species) in Washington: 1) the dorsal stripe usually appears to have "drips" of the color extending partially down the sides, 2) the costal groove count is usually 14, and rarely 15, 3) there are 1 to 1/2 to 3 costal folds between adpressed limbs, 3) darker individuals and juveniles have a yellow throat patch, and 5) there are parotoid glands present. The parotoid glands and slightly webbed toes may not be obvious to the novice. The lack of a constriction at the base of the tail distinguishes stripeless Van Dyke's salamanders from ensatina (provided the ensatina does not have a regenerating tail).

Eggs

Only six nests have been described. The eggs were laid in small clusters within cavities in decaying logs. Typical of woodland salamanders, a female attended the eggs until development was complete. There is no free-living larval period; eggs hatch into fully formed miniature salamanders.

For more details about Van Dyke's salamander, see the Washington Herp Atlas.

Ecology and life history

Van Dyke's Salamander is usually associated with streams, seepages, and rock outcrops. It has been associated with habitats that maintain cool temperature and moist conditions. Large decaying conifer logs near streams appear to be important habitat for nests.

In coastal areas, it is often most abundant in old forest stands that have complex stand structure and moderate to high levels of woody debris and colluvial rock present.

It has also been reported from forested talus, upland sites, and in cave entrances. Interestingly, small populations survived in the Mount Saint Helens' blast zone; these were probably protected by their subterranean refugia and heavy snowpack.

Close up of a rose-phase female Van Dyke's salamander guarding her egg cluster.
Females brood and guard their eggs during the summer. This rose-phase female selected a rotted log for her nest. W.P. Leonard, Copyright

Most surface activity takes place in the spring after snowmelt and before summer drought and in the fall after the onset of fall rains and before temperatures approach freezing. More specifically, most surface activity occurs when soil moisture is high (moist or wet) and soil temperatures are between 39 to 57˚F. Because this species may occupy wet habitats, it is sometimes active on the surface even in the summer.

Nests found on the Olympic Peninsula (elevations below 2300 feet) were laid in early May and development was completed by early October. Females brood and guard the eggs during the summer. One nest was under a moss-covered stone; a grape-like cluster of eggs were attached to the stone by a single gelatinous thread. Another clutch was found in a moist, partially rotted log along a stream in old-growth forest (western red-cedar/Douglasfir/western hemlock/grand fir) in Washington. There is no larval stage; hatchlings emerge as juvenile salamanders.

Geographic range

The Van Dyke's salamander is endemic to Washington State. They occur in three disjunct areas in the Willapa Hills, on the Olympic Peninsula, and in the southern Cascade Ranges. These areas are separated by glacial and alluvial deposits that may limit regional distribution. They generally occur in small isolated populations.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of the Van Dyke’s salamander in Washington as of 2016.

Van Dyke's salamander state distribution map: all Olympic Peninsula and southwest counties plus Thurston and Pierce
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For a map of conservation status of this species, see NatureServe Explorer.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

High

Van Dyke's salamanders, as the coolest adapted of all terrestrial salamanders in western North America, are physiologically sensitive to heat and desiccation; this sensitivity to temperature and moisture changes is driven by respiration requirements (i.e., depend on moist skin surfaces for oxygen uptake), although they can behaviorally regulate exposure by moving underground during times of higher temperatures and less precipitation. However, behavioral regulation of exposure may force longer intervals of seasonal and diel subterranean activity under a climate change regime, the consequences of which are uncertain. Sensitivity of this species is further increased due to their habitat requirements (i.e., cool, forested streams). Changes in hydrology (e.g., declines in snowpack or precipitation) that reduce seeps, and springs, and stream proximate riparian habitat could negatively impact this species.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation
  • Reduced snowpack (in Cascade range)

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.
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. Species occurs in small, scattered populations throughout its range. Vulnerable to stochastic events.
    • Action Needed: Continue research, surveys and monitoring to understand species distribution and status.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss and degradation
    • Threat: Loss of suitable habitat. This species is closely associated with cool, forested streams and dependent on specific microhabitat features.
    • Action Needed: Prevent habitat modification at occupied sites.
  • Climate change and severe weather
    • Threat: Loss of suitable habitat. This species is closely associated with cool, forested streams and dependent on specific microhabitat features.
    • Action Needed: Minimize habitat fragmentation and maintain robust populations across landscape. 

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

Resources

References

Blessing, B. J., E. P. Phenix, L. L. C. Jones and M. G. Raphael. 1999. Nests of Van Dyke's Salamander (Plethodon vandykei) from the Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Northwestern Naturalist 80: 77-81.

Brodie, E. D. 1970. Western salamanders of the genus Plethodon: systematics and geographic variation. Herpetologica 26(4): 468-516.

Herrington, R. E. 1988. Talus use by amphibians and reptiles in the Pacific Northwest. In: Szaro, R.C.; Severson, K.E.; Patton, D.R., Technical Coordinators. Management of amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals in North America. Proceedings of a symposium; 1988 July 19-21; Flagstaff, AZ. Gen. Tech. Rep. RM-166, Fort Collins, Co: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station: 216-221.

Jones, L. L. C., W. P. Leonard, and D. H. Olson, editors. 2005. Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Audubon Society, Seattle, Washington. xii + 227pp.

Jones, L. L. C. 1999. Survey protocol for the Van Dyke's Salamander (Plethodon vandykei) in Survey Protocols for Amphibians Under the Survey & Manage Provision of the Northwest Forest Plan. Version 3.0. October 1999 (Deanna H. Olson, Editor and Subgroup Lead), United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service R-5/6.

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.

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.

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW). 2014. WDFW Wildlife Survey and Management Database.

Wilson, A. G. Jr., J. H. Larsen, Jr. and K. R. McAllister. 1995. Distribution of Van Dyke's Salamander (Plethodon vandykei Van Denburgh). The American Midland Naturalist 134: 388-393.

Personal communications: Marc Hayes, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington

Personal communications: Larry Jones, Wildlife, Fish, and Rare Plants, Coronado National Forest, Tucson, Arizona

WDFW publications

PHS Program

WDFW educational resources

Other resources