Montana’s Long-Toed Salamander

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Montana's Long-Toed SalamanderBy Diane Tipton, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Statewide Information Officer

If you’ve never seen a long-toed salamander in Montana, don’t feel bad. Sightings are limited by the fact they spend most of their time underground, and that they are nocturnal. The salamander isn’t a regular on most wildlife viewing lists either.

That is why this past weekend was a big surprise—while clearing piled brush I saw my first long-toed salamander, and discovered that it had wintered only a few feet from my back door.  

Bryce Maxell, senior zoologist with the Montana Natural Heritage Program, confirmed the sighting and said it is unusual to see the long-toed salamander on the east side of the Continental Divide, it is more common in western Montana where it is potentially the most common amphibian.

This dramatically colored creature is one of four salamander species native to Montana. The others are the tiger salamander, Idaho giant salamander and the Coeur d’ Alene salamander. The tiger and the long-toed salamander are known as mole salamanders because they belong to a family of salamanders that spend a good part of their lives burrowed below the surface.

Here is the scoop on the long-toed salamander. You’ll know it by its dark brown- to grey or black-colored body, the irregular green to yellow stripe down its back and long-toed hind feet.

The long-toed salamander is found in southeastern Alaska, south to Tuolumne County in Northern California, and from the Pacific coast east to north-central Idaho and western Montana. This adaptable amphibian is at home in habitats from sage to alpine as long as water is nearby during the breeding season.

As an adult, it lives on the ground under bark, rocks, and rotting woodpiles. It moves off soon after the snowmelt to shallow ponds and lakes to breed. It prefers water bodies without any fish. After the eggs are deposited in the water the adults migrate to adjacent uplands. Eggs hatch in three to six weeks and metamorphosis takes three to 24 months.

On land these nocturnal hunters seek spiders and insects or worms. In and near water they feed on aquatic crustaceans, flies, gnats and mosquitoes.

Most of the year adult long-toed salamanders are subterranean, living in small rodent burrows or in rock fissures. Adults, when migrating to aquatic breeding sites, hide along fallen logs or surface rocks. The aquatic larvae live in shallow water and vegetative clumps of debris.

It is somewhat comforting to know these fragile-looking creatures spend most of their time underground. If seen from the air, they’d be extremely easy prey for a raven or a raptor.

Disturbing this long-toed salamander during spring clean up made me wonder about the other risks they face. Though fairly common in Western Montana, the Natural Heritage Program’s Amphibian and Reptile Assessment, Literature Review and Conservation Plan suggests, as might be expected, that the frenetic lives of humans aren’t always compatible with a nocturnal, earth-loving, amphibian that needs clean, shallow water to breed.

At least now that this long-toed salamander has made itself known I can be a more knowledgeable, sensitive neighbor—hopefully diminishing the dangers it faces by at least one.