Among our western salamanders, Arboreal Salamanders send our thoughts aloft with only the mention of their name. Salamanders that climb trees? Indeed they do.
Arboreal Salamanders (Aneides lugubris) are members of the lungless salamander family. They breathe through their moist skin. In order to keep their skin moist, they must stay under cover for much of the year. They go underground into burrows, under logs, under leaf cover, under bark and yes, up in trees to find moist niches in the trunk and branches of this arboreal habitat. During moist days in the winter and spring months they will surface, and that is when we are most likely to encounter this species.
Arboreal Salamanders are most closely associated with oak woodlands but can do quite well in a variety of habitats including some of our off shore islands, such as Ano Nuevo Island and the Farallons. They can also thrive in suburban backyards, mostly invisible to their human landlords.
Sometimes it is the juveniles that are found. They hatch in the fall, having bypassed an aquatic larval stage, and emerging as fully formed, albeit very small salamanders. This juvenile was found in the backyard of the Lodge on the Reserve. I’ve been looking for the adults since I got here nearly three years ago, unsure if they even occurred here.
It’s amazing to find one of these juveniles. They are about an inch long, and blend perfectly into the ground color under logs and among dead leaves. This individual was found under a piece of gnarled wood I had placed next to a small pond I constructed last year.
This area is beneath the drip line of a large mature Coast Live Oak. It is amazing to think that adults are probably living on that tree, scaling the same large truck the acorn woodpeckers traverse, the same trunk the bobcat climbed up to make its mark on the tree house.
Last year I was part of a group doing a herpetological survey in the Soquel Demonstration Forest. Among the target species was the Arboreal Salamander. We had great difficulty finding this species until some members of the group began looking under the bark of fallen tan oaks. Sure enough, that is where they were and we soon found several individuals.
These animals have prominent jaw muscles that gives their head a triangular shape. These muscles go along with a fine set of teeth as shown in this photograph by Val Johnson. Despite their small size, one can visualize the ferocity of their predatory acts. It’s all a matter of scale.
Like other lungless salamanders, Arboreal Salamanders have a nasolabial groove. This curious feature is lined with glands and helps the animal discern the presence and condition of other individuals through chemoreception. They communicate audibly as well, and have been known to make a high pitched barking sound.
Arboreal Salamanders are nearly endemic to California with their range extending along the coast into northern Baja California. By all accounts, a real California native.