Nearly two dozen species of salamanders inhabit Western Pennsylvania

From the cool, moist niches of mountain tops to the bottoms of streams

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An angler or hunter might expect to encounter salamanders in diverse places. But inside a wild turkey is not among them.

In late October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy lashed Western Pennsylvania's mountains with wind, rain and 16 inches of wet snow, I crouched on the lee side of a ridge and watched four gobblers scratching through the sodden leaves. When the birds were feeding within range, I picked out the biggest tom and shot.

Later, I opened the bird's crop to learn what those turkeys had been eating. Instead of the anticipated acorns, beechnuts and grapes, the limp bodies of 11 salamanders crammed my gobbler's crop. Some had faded to pallid gray but others showed a brick-red stripe down the back.

I learned by checking my reference books that they were redback salamanders, the most common salamander in woodlands across our region. More significantly, they remain active into late fall and even stir about during mild spells in mid-winter. Those traits, it seems, put them on the menu for several carnivorously inclined turkeys stocking up on protein as an autumn hurricane bore down.

Salamanders belong to the taxonomic class Amphibia. They are distinguished from lizards, which are reptiles, by their smooth scaleless skin and lack of claws and external ear openings. According to "Amphibians and Reptiles of Pennsylvania and the Northeast (Cornell, 2001), Western Pennsylvania is home to 20 salamander species, inhabiting a wide range of habitats from mountaintop ledges to the bottoms of large streams.

But all salamander territories share moisture in common. Salamanders need moisture to keep their skin from drying. Many salamanders even need dampness to breathe, being lungless and exchanging air through their moist skin. Salamanders are rarely active during the day, preferring to forage for insects, grubs, snails and other invertebrates in the cooler, more humid night air.

There's a reason Western Pennsylvania has so many different salamanders.

"[It] is testament to the diversity of habitats there," said Chris Urban, nongame and endangered species coordinator for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the agency with conservation responsibility for amphibians and reptiles in the commonwealth. "Pennsylvania truly is a 'keystone state' that lies within habitat types that reach across state lines from other regions -- the formerly glaciated Great Lakes Plains and mountainous regions like the Alleghenies."

Unlike eastern Pennsylvania, which lost its native tiger salamander to development and suburban sprawl around Philadelphia, Urban said Western Pennsylvania retains all of its original native salamander species, though serious threats remain.

"A few locations in mountainous southwestern Pennsylvania are at the northernmost edge of the green salamander's continental range," Urban said. "It's a more southern species, reaching from southwestern Pennsylvania along the mountains to the heart of the population in Kentucky.

"It also fancies specific geology -- sandstone formations with damp ledges in mature forest. We continue to look, but we have yet to find them in other geologic formations or habitats elsewhere."

While all of our native salamanders are still represented in Western Pennsylvania, Urban said many species have declined and may continue to dwindle.

"The No. 1 reason for salamander species' decline is habitat disturbance," he said. "Statewide, we now have four threatened or endangered salamanders and five others that are considered species of concern. So while it appears that species richness in Pennsylvania is not bad, if you look further into the status of some species it tells a different story."

Most of the still-abundant species, like the redback salamanders I found inside my gobbler, are less particular in their habitat needs. Redbacks live in many kinds of woodland settings, as long as moisture is present. Some herpetologists have stated that redback salamanders, though not obvious to the casual observer, account for a greater proportion of the biomass in eastern forests than do birds.

Just because they are common doesn't mean their life histories are without surprise. Have you ever heard the myth that all amphibians must return to a stream or pond to reproduce? That's not necessarily true. Redbacks mate in the fall under damp logs and leaf litter. Females deposit their eggs under rocks or logs.

Some species have characteristics that make them easy to identify. The longtail salamander, a widely distributed species throughout the state, sports a tail that is a third longer than the rest of the body.

The northern slimy salamander doesn't reveal the source of its name unless it's handled or harassed. Speckled with silvery white spots across a jet black background, the slimy salamander exudes a slippery mucous through its skin that repulses predators. Reference books don't say if it works against hungry turkey gobblers.

Some salamanders actually prey on other salamanders. The northern spring salamander -- a large, reddish and robust species that can exceed 9 inches in length -- eats insects, small fish and smaller salamanders such as the northern two-lined and dusky species.

Few if any predators prey on Pennsylvania's largest salamander, the eastern hellbender. Hellbenders can grow longer than 2 feet in total length (females are larger). They are uniformly dark in color and carry flabby folds of wrinkled skin along their sides. Anglers often encounter hellbenders because these salamanders live on the bottoms of clean, fast-flowing streams like French Creek, Laurel Hill Creek and the upper Allegheny River. Hellbenders feed primarily on crayfish and sometimes are caught when they take bait meant for trout or bass. Angler reaction varies from tolerance to terror.

"When anglers hook [hellbenders] they are often bewildered by the size of these creatures, and many assume they are dangerous," Urban said. "They do have small, sharp teeth but they won't bite you. They are docile, secretive and harmless. We are always pleased to see them because they are indicators of good water quality."

The presence, or absence, of salamanders says much about all kinds of landscapes and habitats.

"These animals are intolerant to pollution and major changes around them," Urban said. "At the local level, if you have a good salamander population, or species richness, the whole system must be in pretty good shape."

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