Perhaps no search for any California salamander was as memorable for me in my younger days than that for the rare Siskiyou Mountains Salamander, restricted to a tiny range on the California-Oregon border. Its distribution is about as limited as any species of salamander. My first edition of the Stebbins (1966) field guide gave this information about its entire known world range:
"Headwaters of Applegate River, 1/2 mi north of California line along Applegate River Road, 1 1/4 mi south of Copper and 0.3 mi south of McKee Bridge, Jackson Co., and on Oregon Caves Road, 14.6 mi. east of junction with U.S. Hwy 199 at Cave Junction, Josephine Co., Oregon, and found recently in California at Hutton Guard Station, Rogue River Nat'l Forest, 1/2 mi. south of Oregon border, Siskiyou Co."So, armed with that information and not much else, a friend and I set out on 20 Apr 1980 on a cool and rainy day to try to find the beast. In search of the wild Plethodon! Ah, that's the life when still in one's twenties!
Of course we only cared about the California location, but to reach it from where we had been birding in Del Norte County one has to traverse parts of Oregon and backtrack on dirt forest service roads to reach this part of California. The drive up the Applegate River valley in Oregon (right) was absolutely gorgeous. My notes report that we found the salamander photographed above about a half mile into California, not far from the middle fork of the Applegate River, on a talus slope.
This is very much a talus salamander and its dorsal surface matched the rocks nicely, down to the little speckles in them. I know that salamanders don't have personalities but this was about as "cute" as a salamander gets (left). We gently replaced it after these photos and headed back home. I liked the shots so much that I had a T-shirt made up with its visage.
It was around that time that I was a guest speaker at an Oregon Field Ornithologists' meeting at Corvallis, Oregon. I took the train to get there. The event was held on the campus of Oregon State University and as I was being shown around we came to the office of Dr. Robert M. Storm for whom the salamander was named by his friends Highton and Brame. Or at least some story like that. My campus guide knew Dr. Storm but, alas, he wasn't in so I missed the chance to meet the namesake. Still... one feels a special connection for no particularly good reason.
I did hear a bit about the taxonomic debate about Plethodon stormi in the 1980s, and indeed the next edition of Stebbins (1985) relegated it to a subspecies of the Del Norte Salamander P. elongatus. But I always thought it was a good species, largely because I wanted it to be so. It occurs within 1 km of P. elongatus in Oregon without clear evidence of interbreeding (Petranka 1998) but biochemically they are as closely related as any two taxa of western Plethodon species (Highton & Larson 1979). Fortunately, most recent texts (e.g., Petranka 1998) follow the recommendation of Nussbaum et al. (1983) and continue to assign it full species status. It is now listed as a threatened or endangered species by Oregon and California.
For a wealth of information on the taxonomy and relationships of the salamanders in the genus Plethodon, see the Tree of Life page on this group. They also consider it a good species.
But whatever its taxonomic status, the adventure of seeking it out was memorable: a drizzly cool day in the Siskiyou Mountains and a great little salamander.
Highton, R., and A. Larson. 1979. The genetic relationships of salamanders of the genus Plethodon. Systematic Zoology 28: 579-599.PHOTOS: All photos were taken April 1980 in the Applegate River valley or headwaters in Oregon & California. All photos © 2001 Don Roberson, all rights reserved.
Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie, Jr., and R. M. Storm. 1983. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. Univ. Press of Idaho, Moscow, ID.
Petranka, J. W. 1998. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Instit. Press, Washington, D.C.
Stebbins, R. C. 1966. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Stebbins, R. C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 2d ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
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