Olympic torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton olympicus)

A closeup of an Olympic torrent salamander on a wood surface.
This species is native to the Olympic Peninsula. (William Leonard)
Category: Amphibians
Family: Rhyacotritonidae - Torrent salamanders
Ecosystems: Riparian areas
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate

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.

Conservation concerns for this salamander in Washington are based on its small global range and narrow environmental requirements. They are temperature-sensitive species with limited dispersal ability.

Occurrence of Olympic torrent salamanders in landscapes with more intact, mature habitat with legacy structures (such as coarse woody debris) will likely be buffered by some impacts of climate change. Most known occurrences (77 percent) are within Olympic National Park, with an additional 15 percent of locations on the Olympic National Forest. National forest occurrences are within late-successional reserves and adaptive management areas that provide some level of riparian habitat protection.

Description and Range

Physical description

The Olympic torrent salamander is a small, aquatic, stream-adapted salamander (less than 2.4 inches snout to vent length). The head is small with a short rounded. The body is relatively long with short limbs and a short tail. Coloration is brown above and yellow to orange-yellow below. White speckling on the body tends to be more concentrated on the sides. This species generally lacks dark dorsal (topside) spotting or blotching, but may have ventral (underside) spotting.

Olympic 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.

Close up of an Olympic torrent salamander held in a hand
Olympic torrent salamanders have large prominent eyes.

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 

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

Eggs have not been found in the wild, suggesting that females hide them well, perhaps in fractured rock or deep in springs. As in other members of the genus, the eggs are thought to be unpigmented, laid singly, and unattached to the substrate.

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

Ecology and life history

Olympic torrent salamander occur in mature coniferous forests where they inhabit cold, permanent streams, seepages, and waterfall splash zones. Stream segments tend to be shallow and slow flowing, and have gravel or rock rubble with low levels of silt. Olympic torrent salamanders tend to be more abundant in streams with north aspects, steep gradients, and cobble substrates. Spaces between rocks are used for cover.

Occupied streams need to be protected with forested riparian buffers that provide stream shading, near-stream terrestrial ambient moisture regimes, large wood recruitment, and dispersal habitat.

Olympic torrent salamanders are active year round, and the mating season is probably prolonged. No nests have been found, presumably because eggs are laid in inaccessible recesses in head-water streams and seeps.

Clutch number is also unknown, but is likely small (eight or fewer eggs). The incubation and larval periods are long (seven to nine months and more than two years respectively).

They are opportunistic predators on invertebrates. They are desiccation intolerant, have highly reduced lungs, and depend on skin surfaces for oxygen intake. Individuals are sedentary, with movements limited to several meters or fewer.

Geographic range

Olympic torrent salamanders are native to the Olympic Peninsula, and distribution within the range is patchy. The species was found to be widespread within Olympic National Park where surveys found it in 41 percent of 168 streams and 47 percent of 235 seeps.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of the Olympic torrent salamander in Washington as of 2016.

2016 Olympic torrent salamander distribution map of Washington: detections in Clallam,Jefferson,Grays Harbor,Mason counties
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate

Overall sensitivity of this species is likely moderate desiccation, it typically never exposures itself to conditions where that senstivity might place it at risk. It is an aquatic habitat specialist that deposits unattached eggs in concealed, often colluvially affected locations, hence, is typically found in low-order headwater streams, seeps and springs. Increasing water temperatures will negatively impact this species as it cannot survive where water temperatures are too high. Reduced snowpack and shifts from snow to rain that lead to more frequent high flow events, erosion and scouring that could make its breeding habitat riskier or actually reduce headwater riparian habitat for the Olympic torrent salamander.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased temperatures (air and water)
  • Changes in precipitation
  • Reduced snowpack
  • Shifts from snow to rain >Precipitation-induced changes in hydrology that may induce changes in headwater colluvial processes
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.

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: Increased water temperatures and sedimentation. This species is closely associated with cool, forested streams and cannot tolerate warm waters. Also, sediment can fill the interstitial spaces between rocks where this species shelters.
    • Action Needed: Leave suitable forested buffers on streams occupied by torrent salamanders to prevent water temperature increases and sedimentation.
  • Climate change and severe weather
    • Threat: Direct mortality and loss of micro-habitat features due to stream flooding, erosion and scouring.
    • 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: Changes to macro- and micro-habitat. These are small salamanders that are closely associated with streams and moist conditions and they do not move long distances.
    • Action Needed: Minimize habitat fragmentation and maintain robust populations across landscape.
    • Threat: Streams and seeps drying. This species is closely associated with cool, forested streams and moist conditions and they do not move long distances.
    • 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

Adams, M. J. and R. B. Bury. 2002. The endemic headwater stream amphibians of the American Northwest: associations with environmental gradients in a large forested preserve. Global Ecology and Biogeography 11:169–178

Howell, B. and Roberts, C. 2008. A Conservation Assessment for the Olympic Torrent Salamander (Rhyacotriton olympicus). Submitted to the Interagency Special Status and Sensitive Species Program, USDA Forest Service Region 6 and USDI Bureau of Land Management, Washington and Oregon.

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.

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.

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