The Santa Cruz Black Salamander

 

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All photographs taken by the author. http://www.zacharge.tumblr.com and Instagram @zacharge

Morning dew clung on green blades of grass, soaking my boots, as I hiked up a hill towards a cluster of rocks. The cool, brisk air offered a stark contrast to the slowly increasing warmth that the November sun was offerring. Blotched with the greens and teals of moss and lichen, the dark grey rocks studded the hillside of oak and buckeye. I have found red, black, and white montane snakes here earlier in the year and was hoping that a late season individual would be resting under a stone. I lifted up a dinner plate sized rock, half expecting the vibrant coils of a Coast Mountain Kingsnake. Instead of a brightly colored, ringed serpent, a jet black, legged amphibian laid waiting.

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(Large adult from Santa Cruz County, CA)

Species Account

The Santa Cruz Black Salamander (Aneides flavipunctatus niger)* is a medium sized caudate in the genus Aneides (the climbing salamanders). As suggested by their common name, A. flavipunctatus niger is predominately jet black in coloration, with some specimens being a very dark charcoal gray. Unlike the Speckled Black Salamander (A. flavipunctatus flavipunctatus) of Northern California, Santa Cruz Black Salamanders do not have any white spots or flecks as adults. However, neonate and juvenile Santa Cruz blacks, like most, if not all, species in the genus Aneides, are jet black and covered with flecks ranging in colors from white, hints of blue and/or gold. Neonate and juvenile flavipunctatus (both niger and flavipunctatus) have a greenish tinge over their bodies- this distinguishes them from neonate Arboreal Salamanders (Aneides lugubris).

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(Juvenile with speckles and greenish tinge from Santa Cruz County, CA)

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(Juvenile transitioning to jet black adult from Santa Cruz County, CA)

Range and Habitat

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(Oak/Buckeye clearing with rock outcropping in Santa Cruz County, CA)

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(Creekside habitat in Santa Clara County, CA)scblack

(Charcoal colored adult found the creek pictured above)

The Santa Cruz Black Salamander occurs in the San Francisco Bay Area from southern San Mateo County, through Santa Clara County, and into Santa Cruz County. This range represents an extreme disjunction from that of this species (flavipunctatus), which is typically found in Northern California. Within their range, Santa Cruz Blacks can be found in a variety of different habitat types such as rock quarries, buckeye/oak clearings, grasslands, and in forested creeks. The presence of rocks, as well as semi-permanent to permanent water source, in the form of a creek, spring, or stream, seem to be the common factor within these habitat types. In drier habitat types, such as in grasslands and oak clearings, these salamanders are typically under rocks in or around rock outcrops or under logs. In creeks, SC Blacks typically favor rocks very close to the water- not submerged completely but close enough as to the soil being constantly damp to near saturated underneath. Santa Cruz Blacks range and share their habitat with a variety of other caudates, such as the California Slender Salamander, Ensatina, California Newt, Rough-skinned Newt, and Arboreal Salamander.

Conclusion

Like most other amphibians in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Cruz Black Salamanders can be found year round if conditions are optimal. Wet and cool conditions are ideal. These salamanders are a species of special concern and are protected by law from collection.

*Some herpetologists recognize the Santa Cruz Black Salamander as its own distinct species Aneides niger.

The Santa Cruz Mountains- A Herper’s Delight

Dark gray, lichen covered rocks come into view as we trek up a dusty, old trail. Having earlier retreated to a local diner to escape the midday heat, the now cool, spring air was a welcomed relief. As we reached the afternoon sunlit rock outcropping, thoughts of which snake species we would encounter first began to form. Would it be a Racer? Would a juvenile NorPac be taking in the mid-afternoon sun? Fence lizards watched us cautiously as we began flipping, making sure to replace each rock as we found them. Reaching a flat rock resting by the larger outcrop, I firmly placed my fingers around the sun soaked stone and lifted it up from the green grass. A flash of red, black and white appeared against the dark brown soil. Making a quick grab, I yelled “Zonata!” Luke Talltree uttered an obscene word of shock, while Jared Heald looked in disbelief as I presented the prize. In my hand was a snake that is often regarded as the “gem” of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

zonatarocks

 

All photographs by the author. http://www.zacharge.tumblr.com . Instagram: @zacharge

202187-262964

 (Coast Mountain Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

The Mountains

Considered a part of the Pacific Coast Range, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range is situated along the western coast of Northern California. Beginning just south of San Francisco, the mountain range spans through San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. Due to levels of varying elevation and a micro-climate that is greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range boasts a variety of different habitat types.  Drought resistant plant life, such as the coast sage scrub, characterizes the chaparral.  Brown colored needles and bark of evergreens litter the forest floor of coastal redwoods. Often studded with rock outcroppings, rolling grasslands and pine-oak clearings offer sun loving plant life a place to thrive. It is within these various areas that reptiles and amphibians flourish.

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Snakes

The diversity of snakes within the mountain range is nothing short of expansive. Various species inhabit the different habitat types within the mountains, with many of their ranges overlapping. Generally preferring open breaks from the extensive stretches of coastal redwoods, it is not uncommon to find multiple species coexisting within the same area. This is especially true with species that inhabit chaparral, pine-oak, and grassland habitats. During months of optimal temperature and weather, one can easily find Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), Western Yellow-bellied Racers (Coluber constrictor mormon), Pacific Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) and Coast Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata multifasciata) all within the same rock outcropping. During the moister, cooler portions of the year, one may easily uncover smaller, more fossorial serpents, such as Ringnecked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus), Sharp-tailed Snakes (both the Forest and Common species of Contia), Nightsnakes (Hypsiglena) and the extremely docile Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) under both natural and artificial cover. The various ponds, creeks, and bodies of water that span throughout the range offer refuge for garter snakes, such as the highly variable Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris) and the large bodied Santa Cruz Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus atratus). Other snake species, such as the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) and the lightning fast Striped Racer (Coluber lateralis) also call the Santa Cruz Mountain Range home.

scarredboa

 (Northern Rubber Boa- San Mateo County, CA)

articlerattler

(Northern Pacific Rattlesnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlelateralis

 (California Striped Racer- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articlegetula

 (California Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

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 (Santa Cruz Garter Snake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articleracer

 (Western Yellow-bellied Racer- San Mateo County, CA)

greenring

 (Pacific Ring-necked Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlecontia

(Sharp-tailed Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

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(California Nightsnake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

Lizards

Lizards are found in every habitat type that exists within the mountain range. Fence Lizards (Sceloporous occidentalis) are a common sight for anyone trekking along sun exposed trails and rock piles. Two endemic species of Alligator Lizard, the live-bearing San Francisco Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea coerulea) and the often colorful California Alligator Lizard (E.multicarinata) can easily be found under rocks and logs in areas that may prove too cold for other  species, such as the temperate redwood forest. One may spy the bright blue tails of juvenile Western Skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) slipping through oak leaf litter during the earlier mornings and midafternoons as they search for arthropod prey. Horned lizards (Phrynosoma blainvillii), as well as California Whiptails (Aspidoscelis tigris munda) are also found within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, often favoring chaparral in varying elevations.

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(California Alligator Lizard- San Mateo County, CA)

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(Western Skink- San Mateo County, CA)

Salamanders and Newts

The majority of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range lies within a temperature rainforest. Characterized by evergreens such as Coastal Redwoods and Douglas fir that thrive on the moisture generated by the Pacific coast, the generally cool and moist forests provide prime Caudata habitat. Year round streams and creeks that bleed into pools are home to the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus). Slender salamanders (Batrachoseps) and Ensatina are easily found under fallen evergreen bark and logs. The mountain range is also home to two species of Aneides– the large, yellow spotted Arboreal Salamander (A.lugubris) and the striking Santa Cruz Black Salamander (A.flavipunctatus niger). During the winter and early spring, it is very common to see mass congregations of both the California Newt (Taricha torosa) and the Rough-skinned Newt (T.granulosa) as they move to ponds and other bodies of water to breed. It should be noted that the aforementioned species are not restricted to the temperate forest. The more adaptable salamanders can be found during the cooler, wetter months within the grasslands, pine-oak clearings, and chaparral.

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articletina(Yellow-eyed Ensatina- Santa Clara County, CA)

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(California Giant Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

scblack(Santa Cruz Black Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

Frogs and Toads

Four species of native frog and toad are found within the mountain range. When the chaparral, grasslands, and pine oak forests are lush during the wetter seasons, the large bodied California Toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus) can be found under both natural and artificial cover. Sierran Tree Frogs (Pseudacris sierra) can often be seen jumping from reed to reed in almost any riparian area. Two spectacular species of Rana reside within the waterways of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The beautiful California Red-legged Frog (R.draytonii) can be found in many of the accessible ponds that exist within the grasslands, often favoring areas with thick aquatic plant life. Preferring rocky, sun exposed streams, the Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (R.boylii) can be found in certain locations within the range. While searching for these Anurans, one may spy the only native aquatic turtle that exists within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata).

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 (California Red-legged Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

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(Sierran Tree Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

Conclusion

The Santa Cruz Mountain Range offers an excellent representation of the biodiversity found within coastal Northern California. Any enthusiast of the outdoors will find the sheer diversity of fauna and scenic habitat simply breathtaking. The vast expansion of undeveloped natural land is certainly a welcome change to the busy cities that lie waiting just outside the Range. Field herpers will enjoy knowing that such a large amount of different reptiles and amphibians call this region home. One must simply pay a visit to the mountains to truly understand the sheer wonder and amazement.

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