Columbia torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton kezeri)

Close up of an adult Columbia torrent salamander on moist ground.
Torrent salamanders have a short, rounded snout and generally prominent yellow colored belly. (W.P. Leonard, Copyright)
Close up of an adult female Columbia torrent salamander on mossy, leafy ground
This female Columbia torrent salamander was found in Pacific County.  (Lisa Hallock, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources)
Category: Amphibians
Family: Rhyacotritonidae - Torrent 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’s status is of concern in Washington based on the species’ small global range, narrow environmental requirements, and potentially unprotected headwater habitat.

In Washington, some occurrences of Columbia torrent salamanders are in protected areas (for example, state designated Natural Area Preserves), while some riparian habitat protections occur through forest practice rules and habitat conservation plans. Temperature sensitivity and limited dispersal ability makes this species potentially sensitive to climate change.

Description and Range

Physical description

The Columbia torrent salamander is a small, aquatic, stream-adapted salamander (rarely more than 2.2 inches snout to vent length). The head is small with a short, rounded snout The body is relatively long with short limbs and a short tail. Coloration is beige-brown above and yellow to orange yellow below. White speckling on the body tends to be more concentrated along the sides. Black speckling also exists, but is very reduced to fine flecking, also mostly along the sides. In general, this species lacks the dark dorsal (topside) and ventral (underside) spotting or blotching that is prominent in the Cascades torrent salamander.

Close up of the upper body of an adult Columbia torrent salamander.
This is an adult Columbia torrent salamander. Note the bulging eyes and short, rounded snout.

Columbia torrent salamanders have large prominent eyes. The large size of the eyes (eye diameter approximately equal to snout length), relatively short, rounded snout and generally prominent yellow component to the belly color are features that help distinguish torrent salamanders from other Washington salamanders.

Adult male torrent salamanders can be distinguished from all other salamanders by the presence of prominent squared vent lobes, a trait unique to the family and the genus.

The color pattern and morphology of torrent salamander species are similar and variable; therefore, torrent salamander species are best identified by collection locality and how that relates to the documented ranges of each species.

Superficially, metamorphosed torrent salamanders resemble woodland salamanders (Plethodon species) and ensatina, but torrent salamanders lack nasolabial grooves and a constriction at the base of the tail (unique to ensatina). Torrent salamanders and rough-skinned newts have a similar color pattern, but differ in overall appearance with newts being stockier, having a thicker skin that is often rough (in the terrestrial phase) and lacking costal grooves.

Adult torrent salamanders have very reduced lungs and breathe mostly through their skin.

Larvae 

Close up of the head and upper body a Columbia torrent salamander larva.
This is a Columbia torrent salamander larva. Note the tiny gills and small, streamlined eyes.

The larvae have greatly reduced gills and tail fins, well-developed functional limbs, prominent dorsally positioned eyes that do not greatly protrude, and a white (young larvae) to yellow-orange belly.

Torrent salamander larvae have well-developed functional limbs, prominent dorsally positioned eyes that do not greatly protrude, and a white (young larvae) to yellow-orange belly. Torrent salamander larvae are the only stream-adapted larval salamanders in Washington with a yellow to orange belly; stream-adapted salamanders have small gills and reduced tail fin.

Eggs

The eggs are unpigmented, laid singly, and not attached to the substate. Females place the eggs in concealed locations (such as cracks in rocks) within relatively cold, low (trickling) flow water. More than one female may place eggs in the same area.

For more details about Columbia torrent salamander, see the Washington Herp Atlas.

Ecology and life history

Columbia torrent salamanders occur in mature, coastal, coniferous forests where they inhabit relatively cold, permanent streams, seepages, and waterfall splash zones. Stream segments tend to be shallow, slow flowing, and have gravel or rock rubble with low levels of silt. They tend to be more abundant in streams with northerly aspects and steep gradients. During rainy wet periods, metamorphosed individuals may occasionally be found in wet terrestrial forest settings away from streams or seepages.

The salamanders are active year round, but the reproductive ecology is not well known. The mating season is probably prolonged similar to other torrent salamander species. Only five nests have been found, presumably because the eggs are laid in inaccessible recesses in head-water streams and seeps.

The situation regarding parental care and communal nesting is unclear. Both have been observed, but neither was consistent at the five described nests. The incubation period is long (seven to nine months), and the larval period is also long (more than two years).

Metamorphosed forms eat a variety of aquatic and semiaquatic invertebrates, while larval forms eat aquatic invertebrates.

Torrent salamanders are desiccation intolerant, have highly reduced lungs and consequently depend on skin surfaces for oxygen uptake.

Individuals are highly sedentary, with movements limited to 10 feet or less.

Geographic range

The Columbia torrent salamander is native to the coastal ranges of southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon. Distribution in Washington is restricted to the Willapa Hills, and distribution within the range is patchy. They can be locally common in suitable habitat.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the distribution of Columbia torrent salamander in Washington based on records in the WDFW database as of 2016. If you see this species in areas that are not indicated on the map or have more recent observations (less than 10 years), please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form

2016 Cascade torrent salamander distribution map of Washington: detections in Pacific, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Lewis counties
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate-
High

could decrease suitable headwater habitat for this species. This species can occur north-facing, steep slopes, which may reflect higher water temperatures and drier microclimates.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased temperatures (air and water)
  • Changes in precipitation variability
  • Reduced snowpack
  • Shifts from snow to rain
  • Earlier snowmelt Note: Only a very tiny part of the range of this torrent salamander is snow-dominated, hence snow-to-rain shifts are not really relevant for this species; changes in amount and seasonal timing of rainfall may be.

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 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: Increase in water temperatures and sedimentation.
    • Action Needed: Leave suitable forested buffers on occupied streams to prevent water temperature increases and sedimentation.
  • Climate change and severe weather
    • Threat: Stream flooding, erosion and scouring could result in direct mortality and/or loss of suitable microhabitat.
    • Action Needed: Leave refuge areas of intact habitat. Buffered streams in clear cuts are more likely to be impacted by extreme precipitation and wind events.
    • Threat: Loss of suitable habitat. These are small salamanders that are closely associated with cool streams and seeps; they do not move long distances.
    • Action Needed: Minimize habitat fragmentation and maintain robust populations across landscape.
    • Threat: Drying of streams may result from unusually low rainfall for prolonged period.
    • Action Needed: Minimize habitat fragmentation and maintain robust populations across landscape.
    • Threat: Warming and drying of streams. Columbia torrent salamanders are closely associated with cool, forested streams and cannot tolerate warm waters.
    • Action Needed: Minimize habitat fragmentation and maintain robust populations across landscape.

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

Resources

References

Hayes, M. and T. Quinn. 2014. Columbia Torrent Salamander (Rhyacotriton kezeri). AmphibiaWeb: Information on amphibian biology and conservation. [web application]. Berkeley, California: AmphibiaWeb. Available: http://amphibiaweb.org/. (Accessed: Nov 12, 2014).

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.

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.

Nijhuis, M. J. and R. H. Kaplan. 1998. Movement patterns and life history characteristics in a population of the Cascade Torrent Salamander (Rhyacotriton cascadae) in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. Journal of Herpetology 32(2): 301-304.

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. and C. K. Tait. 1977. Aspects of the life history and ecology of the Olympic Salamander, Rhyacotriton olympicus (Gaige). The American Midland Naturalist 98: 176-199.

O'Donnell, R., C. Richart. 2012. Diet of the Columbia Torrent Salamander, Rhyacotriton kezeri (Caudata: Rhyacotritonidae): Linkages between Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems In Forested Headwaters. Northwestern Naturalist 93(1):17-22. 2012

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

Russell, K. and A. Gonyaw, J. Strom, K. Diemer and K. Murk. 2002. Three new nests of the Columbia Torrent Salamander, Rhyacotriton kezeri, in Oregon with observations of nesting behavior. Northwestern Naturalist 83:19-22.

Stebbins, R. C. 1951. Amphibians of Western North America. Univ. of Cal. Press, Berkeley. 539pp.

Welsh, H. H. Jr. and A. J. Lind. 1996. Habitat Correlates of the Southern Torrent Salamander, Rhyacotriton variegatus (Caudata: Rhyacotritonidae), in Northwestern California. Journal of Herpetology 30(3): 385-398.

Personal communications

Marc Hayes, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.

WDFW publications

WDFW educational resources

Other resources