An adult climbs up a rocky seep high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
A tiny juvenile in Tuolumne County.
This juvenile was found on a steep rock face with water flowing down it.
Hydromantes platycephalus - Mount Lyell Salamander
from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
(Owens Valley Web-toed Salamander or Oak Creek Salamander)
Although Hydromantes salamanders from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are currently grouped with Hydromantes platycephalus, they differ in color and habitat. In 1985, Macy and Papenfuss identified what they believed to be a new species of Hydromantes on the "Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada at least from the area around Owens Lake to Big Pine" which they named the Owens Valley Web-toed Salamander.
(Macey, J. Robert and Theodore Papenfuss."Herpetology." The Natural History of the White-Inyo Range Eastern California. Ed. Clarence Hall. University of California Press, 1991.)
The Owens Valley Web-toed Salamander was listed separately from the Mount Lyell Salamander by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2011, but not in 2016.
An adult salamander crawls up and over a large wet rock and under another one next to an Inyo County creek.
An adult salamander is seen crawling down a large granite rock next to a creek in Inyo County.
Adults measure 1.7 - 3.5 inches long (4.4-9.0 cm) from snout to vent.
A small stocky salamander with a short tail, webbed feet, and a flattened head and body and 12 costal grooves.
The toes are webbed and the tail is short to aid in climbing.
Nasolabial grooves are present.
Color and Pattern
The dorsal surface usually gray, or brownish, the color of the granite rocks they inhabitat, marked with dark spots again to help camouflage an individual.
The ventral surface is dusky with white flecks.
Young are dark with a greenish tinge.
Life History and Behavior
A member of family Plethodontidae, the Plethodontid or Lungless Salamanders.
Plethodontid salamanders do not breathe through lungs. They conduct respiration through their skin and the tissues lining their mouth. This requires them to live in damp environments on land and to move about on the ground only during times of high humidity. (Plethodontid salamanders native to California do not inhabit streams or bodies of water but they are capable of surviving for a short time if they fall into water.)
Plethodontid salamanders are also distinguished by their naso-labial grooves, which are vertical slits between the nostrils and upper lip that are lined with glands associated with chemoreception.
All Plethodontid Salamanders native to California lay eggs in moist places on land.
The young develop in the egg and hatch directly into a tiny terrestrial salamander with the same body form as an adult.
(They do not hatch in the water and begin their lives as tiny swimming larvae breathing through gills like some other types of salamanders.)
This species is nocturnal and cold tolerant down to 35 degrees F. (2.0 C).
Surface activity is from late April to early September.
Mt. Lyell Salamanders probably move into below-ground microhabitats and remain inactive during winter freezes and summer droughts, but they remain active underground during the summer.
Adapted to climb easily over smooth steep rock surfaces using its webbed feet and tail for stability.
Several H. platycephalus were observed by G. Nafis and T. Burkhardt on May 18, 2001 at 9000 ft.elevation in Tuolumne County. The salamanders were actively foraging on steep rock faces wet from snowmelt at 12:00 AM with an air temperature of 40 degrees F.
Defense mechanisms include raising up the head and tail and flattening the body, producing sticky toxic skin secretions, and tightly coiling the body and tail and rolling downhill (the same escape tactic used by other Hydromantes species.) (You can watch a short video of a different species of salamander using this coiling, rolling and springing escape technique here.)
Diet and Feeding
Diet consists primarily of insects and other small invertebrates.
Feeds by shooting out a very long sticky mushroom-like tongue very quickly to catch prey.
Little is known about the breeding behavior of this species.
Reproduction is terrestrial.
Females presumably lay eggs in early summer.
Young develop completely in the egg and hatch fully formed.
Apparent hatchlings have been found in summer.
Associated with granite talus with water seeping through it, typically downslope from snowfields that melt well into the summer. Inhabits caves, granite boulders, rock fissures. rocky stream edges, and seepages from springs and melting snow. Frequents cliff faces, vertical cavern walls, and level ground. In the Yosemite Valley, H. platycephalus is found within the spray zones of several waterfalls and under moss on wet rock faces. Most locations tend to be open, not shaded.
Endemic to California, with a fairly continuous range from the Sonora Pass area south to the Franklin Pass area, Tulare County along the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Low elevation records are from the Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County. Isolated populations occur: Sierra Buttes, Sierra county; Smith Lake, El Dorado County; and Blackwood Canyon, Placer County.
The Blackwood Canyon population in the Truckee River drainage of the Lake Tahoe Basin was discovered in 2006. This is the first record from Placer County, filling in a major gap in the distribution of this salamander.
(Richardson & Gienger. Herpetological Review 38(2), 2007)
Some salamanders and their habitat from this Placer County location are shown above.
At elevations of 4000-12,000 ft (1220 - 3660 m).
Notes on Taxonomy
Discovered by accident in 1915 when salamanders were accidentally caught in traps intended to catch small mammals on Mt. Lyell in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
H. platycephalus is one of five species of Hydromantes, all of which are endemic to California. The others are the three Shasta complex Hydromantes and H. brunus.
SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 43, 2017 shows the following note:
"Rovito (2010, Mol. Ecol. 19: 4554–4571) evaluated genetic variation in both mitochondrial and nuclear genes in H. brunus and H. platycephalus and those data supported the hypothesis that H. brunus was derived from H. platycephalus by peripatric speciation. Thus H. platycephalus is paraphyletic, but no changes in its taxonomy were suggested."
H. platycephalus is currently under genetic scrutiny and may actually represent a complex of two to three species.
Macy and Pappenfuss (The Natural History of the White-Inyo Range Eastern California, 1991) have proposed that H. platycephalus occurring on the desert slope of the eastern Sierra Nevada are a distinct taxon, the Owens Valley Web-toed Salamander, but a formal description has not yet been published.
A study by U.C. Berkeley researcher Sean M. Rovito** published in 2010 reported that "Phylogeographical analysis revealed two divergent lineages within Hydromantes platycephalus, which were estimated to have diverged in the Pliocene. By contrast, a low-elevation species, Hydromantes brunus, diverged from within the northern lineages of H. platycephalus much more recently (mid-Pleistocene), during a time of major climatic change in the Sierra Nevada."
These two deeply divergent mtDNA lineages of H. platycephalus are separated by the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River in the Mammoth Lakes region of the central Sierra Nevada, with the northern population found from Ritter Pass north and the southern population found from Lake George south, including the Owens Valley population on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Flaxington, William C. Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Field Observations, Distribution, and Natural History. Fieldnotes Press, Anaheim, California, 2021.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Amphibians of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Bishop, Sherman C. Handbook of Salamanders. Cornell University Press, 1943.
Lannoo, Michael (Editor). Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. University of California Press, June 2005.
Petranka, James W. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
Macey, J. Robert and Theodore Papenfuss."Herpetology." The Natural History of the White-Inyo Range Eastern California. Ed. Clarence Hall. University of California Press, 1991.
Joseph Grinnell and Charles Lewis Camp. A Distributional List of the Amphibians and Reptiles of California. University of California Publications in Zoology Vol. 17, No. 10, pp. 127-208. July 11, 1917.
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the October 2021 California "Special Animals List" and the October 2021 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
On the 2011 Special Animals List salamanders from the eastern Sierra Nevada are listed separately as Hydromantes sp. 1 Owens Valley web-toed salamander (AKA Oak Creek salamander) but the 2016 Special Animals List does not list them separately.
NatureServe Global Ranking
Apparently Secure—Uncommon but not rare; some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.
NatureServe State Ranking
Apparently Secure—Uncommon but not rare in the state; some cause for long-term concern due to
declines or other factors.