A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Ensatina - Ensatina Eschscholtzii

Sierra Nevada Ensatina - Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis

(Espada, 1875)

Click on a picture for a larger view
Ensatina California Range Map
Orange: Range of this subspecies in California
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis -
Sierra Nevada Ensatina

Range of other subspecies in California:

Light Blue: Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater -
Yellow-blotched Ensatina

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

Yellow: Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica -
Yellow-eyed Ensatina

Click on the map for a topographical view

Map with California County Names

observation link

Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Kern County Adult, Kern County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Mariposa County Adult, in defensive posture,
Mariposa County
Adult, Mariposa County Adult, 1,100 ft., Fresno County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Kern County Adult, Butte County
© Jackson Shedd
Adult, Fresno County (notice the milky defensive secretions on the tail.)
© Tim Burkhardt
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult, Kern County Adult underside, Kern County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Gravid adult female, Mariposa County
© Paul Maier
Adult, Tuolumne County
© Paul Maier
Adult, Kern County
© Noah Morales
Adult, Kern County © Ryan Sikola
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult female, Butte County © Marcus Rehrman
Yellow-eyed Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Dark adult, Amador County
© Richard Porter
Adult, Amador County
© Richard Porter
Adult, Kern County © Ryan Sikola On August 2nd in Tulare County, Ricky Grubb photographed this adult Sierra Nevada Ensatina brooding approximately 10 eggs inside a rotting log from a fallen Giant Sequoia. 
© Ricky Grubb
Yellow-blotched Ensatina      
Left: E. e. croceater
Right: E. e. platensis
These two Ensatina were found within a hundred feet of each other in the Greenhorn Mountains in Kern County, where both subspecies occur.
© Ryan Sikola
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Juvenile, Tulare County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Large juvenile, Kern County Adult and large juvenile, Kern County Small juvenile, Tulare County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Small juvenile, Butte County
© Jackson Shedd
Adult and large juvenile, Kern County Juvenile, Mariposa County
© Paul Maier
Tiny juvenile, Nevada County
© Julia Ggem
Aberrant Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
© David Thompson This pale adult was found in Placer County not far from the range of the Yellow-eyed Ensatina, so its unusual appearance might be due to intergradation or hybridization.
Unusually-pigmented adult, El Dorado County © Richard Porter
Large-blotched Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina    
Pale adult, Kern County © Ryan Sikola Adult, Kern Plateau 
© 2003 Brad Alexander

The presence of Ensatina on the Kern Plateau in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains was confirmed in 2003 when Brad Alexander found several (including the orange and lilac salamander shown above) on a rainy night in an area where he had seen them many years previously. Because of its range and appearance, this animal is included with the subspecies E. e. platensis.
Intergrade or Hybrid Adults
Large-blotched Ensatina Yellow-blotched Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina
Adult with the markings of E.e.platensis and the coloring of E. e. croceater, Kern County © Ryan Sikola Adult, 1,800 ft. elevation, Kern County, from the intergrade zone with
E. e. croceater.
E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis intergrades, Shasta County E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis juvenile, Shasta County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Oregon Ensatina
E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis intergrade adult, Shasta County, before and after excreting milky defensive fluids. E. e. platensis x E. e. oregonensis intergrade adult, Shasta County
© Spencer Riffle
Yellow-eyed Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina  
Yellow-eyed Ensatina x Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica x Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis) intergrade, Calaveras County © Chad M. Lane  
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Sierra Nevada Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina  
This adult and juvenile were found near Twain Harte in Tuolumne County, which is in the contact or hybrid zone between E. e. xanthoptica and E. e. platensis
© Taryn Horn
The small patch of color in the eye shows that this Sierra Nevada Ensatina is part Yellow-eyed Ensatina.
Amador County © Richard Porter
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat Kings River Slender Salamander Habitat Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat
Habitat, 5,900 ft., Kern County Habitat, 1,100 ft., Fresno County Habitat, Yosemite Valley,
Mariposa County
Habitat, Tulare County
Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat Sierra Nevada Ensatina Habitat    
Habitat, Shasta County
Habitat, 5,900 ft., Kern County    
Short Video
Sierra Nevada Ensatina      
A Sierra Nevada Ensatina in the mountains of Kern County.      
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 is gray to dark brown above, with reddish to orange spots.
The underside is pale gray to whitish.
Yellow to orange coloring is present on the base of the limbs.
The upper eyelids have yellow to orange spots.

Juveniles are darker with fewer spots.
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. Longevity has been estimated at up to 15 years.
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.
(Pictures of Ensatinas with their eggs and hatchlings)
In labs, eggs have hatched in 113 - 177 days.
Young develop completely in the egg and probably leave the nesting site with the first saturating Fall rains, or, at higher elevations, after the snow melts.

Inhabits moist shaded evergreen and deciduous forests and oak woodlands. Found under rocks, logs, other debris, especially bark that has peeled off and fallen beside logs and trees.
Most common where there is a lot of coarse woody debris on the forest foor. In dry or very cold weather, stays inside moist logs, animal burrows, under roots, woodrat nests, under rocks.

Geographical Range
This subspecies of Ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - Sierra Nevada Ensatina, is endemic to California. Found in the Sierra Nevada mountains from the Greenhorn Mountains north to the area around Mt. Lassen where integrades with
E. e. oregonensis
(or E. e. picta) occur. Some individuals in the lower Kern River Canyon are intergrades with
E. e. croceater

From around 1,000 ft. (305 m) to around 11,000 ft. (3,350 m).

In the central Sierra Nevada mountains, it occurs at higher elevations than E. e. xanthoptica.

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
Hybridizes with E. e. xanthoptica in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

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 platensis - Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Stebbins 2003, 2012)
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis
- Sierra Nevada Salamander (Ensatina) (Stebbins 1966, 1985)
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - ssp. of Eschscholtz's Salamander (Stebbins 1954)
Ensatina sierrae - Sierra Nevada Salamander (Bishop 1943)
Ensatina croceater - Yellow-spotted Salamander (Storer 1925)
Plethodon croceater (Cope 1867)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Family Plethodontidae Lungless Salamanders Gray, 1850
Genus Ensatina Ensatinas Gray, 1850
Species Eschscholtzii Ensatina Gray, 1850

platensis Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Espada, 1875)
Original Description
Ensatina eschscholtzii - Gray, 1850 - Cat. Spec. Amph. Coll. Brit. Mus., Batr. Grad., p. 48
Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis - Jimenez de la Espada, 1875) - An. Soc. Espan. Hist. Nat. 4, p. 71, pl. 1

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.
platensis: Belonging to the Rio La Plata, Uruguay. Espada named this salamander Urotropis platensis because he thought
it came from Montevideo, Uruguay.The specimen was probably mis-labelled.

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
Yellow-eyed Ensatina
Yellow-blotched Ensatina

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife


Charles W. Brown's Ensatina Web Site

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

Conservation Status

The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the January 2024 State of California Special Animals List and the January 2024 Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California list (unless indicated otherwise below.) Both lists are produced by multiple agencies every year, and sometimes more than once per year, so the conservation status listing information found below might not be from the most recent lists. To make sure you are seeing the most recent listings, go to this California Department of Fish and Wildlife web page where you can search for and download both lists:

A detailed explanation of the meaning of the status listing symbols can be found at the beginning of the two lists. For quick reference, I have included 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 also go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.

This salamander is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.

Organization Status Listing  Notes
NatureServe Global Ranking
NatureServe State Ranking
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None


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