A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Ensatina - Ensatina Eschscholtzii

Yellow-blotched Ensatina -
Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater

(Cope, 1867)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Ensatina California Range Map
Light Blue: Range of this subspecies in California
Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater - Yellow-blotched Ensatina

Range of other subspecies in California:

Purple: Ensatina eschscholtzii eschscholtzii -
Monterey Ensatina

Dark Blue: Ensatina eschscholtzii klauberi -
Large-blotched Ensatina

Red: Ensatina eschscholtzii oregonensis -
Oregon Ensatina

Pink: Ensatina eschscholtzii picta -
Painted Ensatina

Orange: Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis -
Sierra Nevada Ensatina

: Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica -
Yellow-eyed Ensatina

Click on the map for a topographical view

Map with California County Names

observation link

Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Adult, 3,300 ft., Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Underside of adult, Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County Adult, 3,300 ft. Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Adult, in defensive pose, 6,000 ft. elevation, Kern County
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Adult, 6,000 ft. elevation Kern County Adult, 1,800 ft. elevation, Kern County, from intergrade zone with E.e.platensis. Adult, 4,500 ft., Tehachapi, Kern County.
This Ensatina with large blotches was discovered one night in late December on a back porch. It was 45 degrees and raining. © Terri Asher
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Adult, Kern County © Spencer Riffle Adult, Kern County © Spencer Riffle Adult, Kern County © Spencer Riffle
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Adult, Kern County © Spencer Riffle Adult, Kern County © Spencer Riffle Adult, Kern County © Spencer Riffle
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina  
  Left: E. e. croceater
Right: E. e. platensis
These two Ensatina were found within a hundred feet of each other in Kern County, where both subspecies occur.
© Ryan Sikola
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina
Juvenile, 6,000 ft.,
Kern County
Juvenile, 3,300 ft. Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County Juvenile, (about 1.5 inches in length) Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County
Hybrids or Intergrades
Large-blotched Ensatina Large-blotched Ensatina Large-blotched Ensatina
Pale-blotched adult, (probably an intergrade with the Large-blotched
) 5,500 ft., Mt. San Jacinto, Riverside County
Adult with the markings of E.e.platensis and the coloring of E. e. croceater,
Kern County © Ryan Sikola
Yellow-blotched Ensatina Habitat Yellow-blotched Ensatina Habitat Yellow-blotched Ensatina Habitat
Habitat, 3300 ft., Tehachapi Mountains,
Kern County
Habitat, 3300 ft., Tehachapi Mountains,
Kern County
Habitat, 3,500 ft., Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County
Kern Canyon Slender Salamander Habitat Yellow-blotched Ensatina Habitat  
Habitat, 2,400 ft., Kern County

Habitat, 6,000 ft., Kern County  
Short Video
  Yellow-blotched Ensatina  
  An adult Yellow-blotched Ensatina crawls around on a fallen log trying to get back under cover.  
An adult Ensatina measures from 1.5 - 3.2 inches long (3.8 - 8.1 cm) from snout to vent, and 3 - 6 inches (7.5 - 15.5 cm) in total length.

A medium-sized salamander.
The legs are long, and the body is relatively short, with 12 - 13 costal grooves.
Nasolabial grooves are present.
The tail is rounded and constricted at the base, which will differentiate this salamander from its neighbors.
Color and Pattern
This subspecies has a black ground color is marked with large yellow or cream-colored blotches, with yellow or orange on the base of the limbs.
Male / Female Differences
Males have longer, more slender tails than females, and a shorter snout with an enlarged upper lip, while the bodies of females are usually shorter and fatter than the bodies of males.

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.)
Ensatina live in relatively cool moist places on land becoming most active on rainy or wet nights when temperatures are moderate. They stay underground during hot and dry periods where they are able to tolerate considerable dehydration. They may also continue to feed underground during the summer months. High-altitude populations are also inactive during severe winter cold.

Adults have been observed marking and defending territories outside of the breeding season.
Adults have been observed marking and defending territories outside of the breeding season.
Longevity has been estimated at up to 15 years.
When it feels severely threatened by a predator, an Ensatina may detach its tail from the body to distract the predator. The tail moves back and forth on the ground to attract the predator while the Ensatina slowly crawls away to safety. The tail can be re-grown.

The tail also contains a high density of poison glands. When disturbed, an Ensatina will stand tall in a stiff-legged defensive posture with its back swayed and the tail raised up while it secretes a milky white substance from the tail, swaying from side to side. This noxious substance repels predators, although some experienced predators learn to eat all but the tail. The poison is also exuded from glands on the head.

If a person gets the poison on their lips, they will experience some numbness for several hours.
(Charles Brown -

Rarely, an Ensatina may make a hissing or squeaking sound when threatened.
Predators include Stellar's Jays, gartersnakes, and racoons.
(Kuchta and Parks, Lanoo ed. - Amphibian Declines... 2005)
Diet and Feeding
Ensatinas eat a wide variety of invertebrates, including worms, ants, beetles, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs, and snails.
They expell a relatively long sticky tongue from the mouth to capture the prey and pull it back into the mouth where it is crushed and killed, then swallowed.
Typically feeding is done using sit-and-wait ambush tactics, but sometimes Ensatinas will slowly stalk their prey.
"Rarely, it may produce a squeak or snakelike hiss, quite a feat for an animal without lungs!"
(Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)
Yellow-blotched Ensatina
This frightened Humboldt County Ensatina is raised up in defensive mode, excreting a milky white defensive liquid on its head and tail. It jerks its head several times, and each time it makes a very faint squeaking sound.
Click the picture to play a short video to hear the squeaking. (You might need to turn the volume all the way up.)
© Cory Walker
Reproduction is terrestrial.
Mating takes place in Fall and Spring, but may also occur throughout the winter.
Stebbins describes an elaborate Ensatina courtship involving the male rubbing his body and head against the female eventually dropping a sperm capsule onto the ground which the female picks up with her cloaca. You can watch an Ensatina courtship video on YouTube.

The female can store the sperm until she determines the time is right to fertilize her eggs.
At the end of the rainy season, typically April or May, females retreat to their aestivation site under bark, in rotting logs, or in underground animal burrows, and lay their eggs.
Females lay 3 - 25 eggs, with 9 - 16 being average.
Females remain with the eggs to guard them until they hatch. (You can see pictures of two Ensatinas with their eggs and hatchlings here.)
In labs, eggs have hatched in 113 - 177 days.
Young develop completely in the egg and hatch fully formed.
Young probably leave the nesting site with the first saturating Fall rains, or, at higher elevations, after the snow melts.

Found in evergreen and deciduous forests, under rocks, logs, and other surface debris, especially bark that has peeled off and fallen beside decaying logs. Shaded north-facing areas seem to be favored, especially near creeks or streams.
Most common where there is a lot of woody debris on the forest foor. In dry or very cold weather, stays inside moist logs, animal burrows, under roots, woodrat nests, and under rocks.

Geographical Range
Yellow-blotched Ensatina are endemic to California. They occur in the lower Kern River Canyon, the Paiute Mountains, Breckenridge Mountain, the Tehachapi mountains, on Mt. Abel, Mt. Pinos, near Fort Tejon, and near Frazier-Alamo mountain. Some individuals in the lower Kern River Canyon are intergrades with E. e. platensis. Intergrades with E. e. klauberi are found in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.

Ensatina is the most widely-distributed plethodontid salamander in the West, ranging from an isolated location in the mountains of Baja California north along the extreme northwest coast of Baja California, through most of California excluding the deserts, the central valley, and high elevations in the mountains, continuing north into Oregon and Washington west of the Cascades Mountains, and farther north into Canada along the coast of southern British Columbia. Also found on Vancouver Island.

The range maps in Stebbins (2003 and 2012) show a very large range of intergradation between 4 subspecies in Northern California that at one time was considered part of the range E. e. oregonensis. I show this range on my maps as E. e. oregonensis partly because Stebbins & McGinnis, 2012, report that molecular studies have shown complexities that make the use of the term "intergrade" innacurate.

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range
In his 2003 field guide, Stebbins shows the elevational range of Ensatina eschscholtzii as "Sea level to around 11,000 ft (3,350 m). That is for the species but not necessarily this subspecies.

Notes on Taxonomy
Ensatina taxonomy is controversial. The species Ensatina eschscholtzii traditionally consists of 7 subspecies:

E. e. croceater
E. e. eschscholtzii
E. e. klauberi
E. e. oregonensis
E. e. picta
E. e. platensis
E. e. xanthoptica

Some researchers see Ensatina eschscholtzii as two or more species that make up a superspecies complex.
They recognize E. e. klauberi, found at the southern end of the ring, as a separate species - Ensatina klauberi.

Ensatina as a Ring Species

Ensatina eschscholtzii has been called a "ring" species, or "Rassenkreis" (race circle) "...a connected series of neighbouring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two 'end' populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each 'linked' population. Such non-breeding, though genetically connected, 'end' populations may co-exist in the same region thus closing a 'ring'." (Wickipedia, 8/26/17) The "end" populations of Ensatina are the E. e. escholtzii and the E. e. klauberi subspecies, which hybridize in San Diego County.

To learn much more about Ensatina and the ring species concept, check out this Understanding Evolution Research Profile about Tom Devitt's work.

Charles W. Brown explains the taxonomy of the Ensatina complex in detail, describing it as "a classical example of Darwinian evolution by gradualism; an accumulation of micro mutations that is now leading to the formation of a new species."

Illustration of the Ensatina ring:

Large-blotched Ensatina

Use: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Photo Credit: Thomas J. Devitt, Stuart J.E. Baird and Craig Moritz, 2011.
Source: (2011). "Asymmetric reproductive isolation between terminal forms of the salamander ring species Ensatina eschscholtzii revealed by fine-scale genetic analysis of a hybrid zone". BMC Evolutionary Biology 11 (1): 245. DOI:10.1186/1471-2148-11-245.

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater - Yellow-blotched Ensatina (Stebbins 2003, 2012)
Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater
- Yellow-blotched Salamander (Ensatina) (Stebbins 1966, 1985)
Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater - ssp. of Eschscholtz's Salamander (Stebbins 1954)
Ensatina croceater - YellowBlotched Salamander (Yellow Spotted Salamander) (Bishop 1943)
Ensatina croceater - Yellow-spotted Salamander - (Storer 1925)
Plethodon croceater - Yellow-spotted Salamander - Cape St. Lucas Triton, Yellow-spotted Lizard (Grinnell and Camp 1917)
Plethodon croceater (Cope 1867)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
This subspecies is a species of special concern.
Family Plethodontidae Lungless Salamanders Gray, 1850
Genus Ensatina Ensatinas Gray, 1850
Species Eschscholtzii Ensatina Gray, 1850

croceater Yellow-blotched Ensatina (Cope, 1867)
Original Description
Ensatina eschscholtzii - Gray, 1850 - Cat. Spec. Amph. Coll. Brit. Mus., Batr. Grad., p. 48
Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater - Cope, "1867" 1868 - Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia, Vol. 19, p. 210

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Ensatina: Latin - sword shaped/similar to, possibly referring to the teeth.
eschscholtzii: honors Johann F. Eschscholtz.
croceater: Latin - saffron colored & black, referring to the color pattern.

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Related California Salamanders
Large-blotched Ensatina
Monterey Ensatina
Oregon Ensatina
Painted Ensatina
Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Yellow-blotched Ensatina

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife


Hansen, Robert W. Kern River Research Area Field Notes Spring 1997 Vol. 6, No. 2

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.

Joao Alexandrino, Stuart J. E. Baird, Lucinda Lawson, J. Robert Macey, Craig Moritz, and David B. Wake.  Strong Selection Against Hybrids at a Hybrid Zone in the Ensatina Ring Species Complex and Its Evolutionary Implications.  Evolution, 59(6), 2005, pp. 1334–1347.

Shawn R. Kuchta, Duncan S. Parks, David B. Wake. Pronounced phylogeographic structure on a small spatial scale: Geomorphological evolution and lineage history in the salamander ring species Ensatina eschscholtzii in central coastal California. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50 (2009) 240–255

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.
Conservation Status

The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the July 2022 State of California "Special Animals List" and the July 2022 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and can be downloaded here:
You can check this link to see if there are more current lists.

A detailed explanation of the meaning of the status listing symbols can be found on the
Special Animals List. For quick reference, I have copied some of them on my Special Status Information page.

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.

The 2021 Special Animals List uses a different common name for this subspecies than is used here:
yellow-blotched salamander
Organization Status Listing  Notes
NatureServe Global Ranking G5T3 Species: Secure—Common
NatureServe State Ranking S3 Vulnerable
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife WL Watch List
Bureau of Land Management S Sensitive
USDA Forest Service S Sensitive
IUCN Not listed

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