California Tiger Salamander

The California Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma californiense, is an amphibian native to Northern California. Once considered to be a subspecies of Tiger Salamander, this specimen was recently designated as a separate species. It is classified as an endangered species in the counties of Sonoma and Santa Barbara.

The California Tiger Salamander’s habitat is mostly grasslands throughout most of its range. It occurs from Sonoma County south to Santa Barbara County. It is found in vernal pools and isolated ponds along the Central Valley from Colusa County to Kern County, and along the coastal range.

On August 4, 2004, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed the California Tiger Salamander as threatened within the Central Valley range. In most areas of its range, populations have declined due primarily to habitat loss.

The California Tiger Salamander is a relatively large and secretive amphibian. It is endemic to the state of California. The adult grows to a length of 7 to 8 inches. It has a stocky body and broad snout which is rounded. Adults are black in color with yellow or cream spots. Larvae are green to gray in color. Its protruding eyes are brown with black pupils.

The California Tiger Salamander relies heavily on springtime pools for reproduction. Its habitat is limited to the vicinity of these large, fishless pools or similar bodies of water. It occurs at altitudes up to 3200 feet. Adults migrate during the night hours and move upland to aquatic breeding sites during the first rains of fall. They return to their summer habitats after breeding has occurred.

The adult spends most of its life underground in burrows created by other animals. The salamanders themselves are poorly equipped for digging burrows. Not a lot is known about their secretive life underground. This underground behavior is often referred to as estivation — summertime equivalent of hibernation — but true estivation has never been observed in this species.

Researchers have placed fiber optic cameras in the underground burrows and have witnessed salamanders actively foraging. Adults are known to eat earthworms, snails, insects, fish and even small mammals, but generally adults eat very little.

Breeding starts after the first rains in late fall to early winter, when the wet season allows the salamanders to migrate to the nearest pond. The journey sometimes takes several days and can be up to a mile away. The female lays eggs in small clusters or sometimes singly. They hatch after 10 to 14 days.

The larval stage lasts for three to six months. However, larvae may also overwinter. Overwintering larvae may take as long as 13 months or more to transform into the adult stage. When its aquatic habitat undergoes changes, it can pose severe implications for the larvae, and may contribute to their status as a threatened species.

Larvae feed on other small invertebrates, including tadpoles. When the pond dries they re-absorb their gills, develop lungs, and then leave the pond in search of a burrow.

California Tiger Salamanders are believed to have relatively long life spans of ten years or longer.

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