The Santa Cruz Black Salamander




All photographs taken by the author. 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.


(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).



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



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

Range and Habitat


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



(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.


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.

Eastern Red-Spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

The Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) is a common species of newt found throughout eastern North America. Eastern newts are a member of the family Salamandridae, and one of only two genera endemic to North America.  Four varieties of N. viridescens are currently recognized in North America: the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens), the peninsula newt (Notophthalmus viridescens piaropicola), the central newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis), and the broken-striped newt (Notophthalmus viridescens dorsalis).  Although there are notable differences in size and appearance of the newts of these four groups, studies of their DNA have revealed that little genetic variation exists between them, so they are not considered true subspecies. This article will focus primarily on Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens.

The red-spotted newt is the largest of the four varieties. These newts have three specific life stages: aquatic larva, terrestrial juvenile, and adult. The aquatic larvae typically range from 7 to 9mm in length when they hatch, with gills and a laterally compressed tail that support survival in their aquatic environment. At approximately 3 to 5 months, they metamorphose into their terrestrial juvenile stage. Newts in this stage are referred to as “red efts”. These efts range in color from orange to bright red. They have two parallel rows of up to 21 red spots with black outlines. Their skin is dry and textured, they have resorbed their gills and caudal fin, and they have developed lungs, eyelids, and limbs to support their new terrestrial lives. After 2 to 3 years, the juveniles then metamorphose once more, this time into sexually mature adults. At this stage, a newt can grow up to 5.5” in length and are identified by their greenish- to yellow-ish brown dorsum with rows of orange to red spots running down both sides of their back. The ventral surface is yellow with small black spots that fleck the skin. The skin is moist, and most adults return to aquatic environments.


Diet/Feeding: Red-spotted newts feed on small invertebrates, including worms, insects, small fish, amphibian eggs, etc.

Habitat/Range: The collective range of all four regional varieties extend from the Maritime Provinces of Canada to as far south as Florida, and west to Texas and the Great Lakes. Larval newts occupy small freshwater environments, such as ponds or small lakes. Efts move to moist terrestrial areas surrounding these bodies of water. While the majority of adults return to a fully aquatic stage, some adults can move back to land if dry conditions exist.


Reproduction: Adult newts return to permanent or semi-permanent bodies of water for breeding, which  takes place in late winter and spring months. This migration is usually preceded by heavy, seasonal rains. Males are easily recognized by their enlarged hind limbs, nuptial excrescences, swollen cloaca, and crested caudal fin during the breeding season. The male lures the female by fanning his tail, then grasps the female and rubs his genial gland (found in the temporal region) along the female’s face. If the female is receptive, the male will deposit a sperm packet on the pond floor, which the female will then pick up via the cloaca. After they are fertilized, the female will singly lay between 200 and 400 eggs on vegetation in the water over a period of many days.


Herping Tips: Red efts and terrestrial adults can be found under rocks and in leaf litter on the forest floor, typically within close proximity to a source of water. During the spring months, shallow ponds that lack the presence of large predatory fish can host an abundance of breeding adults. Because these adults must breathe air, they can often be observed swimming along the surface of the water. Many amphibians, including the red-spotted newt, will exhibit the unken reflex when startled. The unken reflex is the defensive posture pictured below, in which the newt arches its body to reveal its brightly colored ventral surface as a warning of toxicity to potential predators.


Southern Two-Lined Salamander, Eurycea cirrigera

The Southern Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera) is a small species of salamander of the family Plethodontidae, typically growing to 2.4-4” in length. They can be identified by the two parallel black lines that run laterally down their tan to yellow dorsum to the end of the tail. Most individuals also exhibit black spots along the back, between the lateral lines. Their bodies are slender with 14 costal grooves. Mature males can be distinguished by enlarged jaw musculature, a mental gland beneath the chin for pheromone secretion, and cirri, which are presumed to aid in chemoreception.


Diet/Feeding: These salamanders feed on invertebrate organisms found in or near the creeks and streams they inhabit, including earthworms, spiders, flies, ticks, millipedes, and various larvae. Plethodontids are unique among other salamanders due to their lack of lungs. Lack of this functional constraint has allowed for the specialization of certain elements to aid in feeding. A cartilaginous hyobranchial apparatus (tongue skeleton) folds during the extension of the tongue, allowing it to project from the mouth. A sticky pad at the tip of the tongue adheres to the prey item, which is then retracted into the mouth of the salamander. This modified feeding mechanism allows the salamander to catch a prey item at up to 80% of their body length in distance.

Habitat/Range: Southern Two-Lined Salamanders can be found throughout the Southeast United States, excluding the peninsular region of Florida. As members of the family Plethodontidae, they are lungless salamanders and rely on cutaneous respiration, requiring the skin to be kept moist. All individuals are at least semi-aquatic, with some adults remaining fully aquatic. They typically occupy shallow creeks and streams that are abundant with rocks, wood debris, and leaf litter for cover, although they have been observed both in much deeper waters as well as terrestrial forest environments during wet weather.


Reproduction: Breeding begins with a mating ritual that involves the male repeatedly nudging the female to judge her receptiveness. Males possess elongated premaxillary teeth during breeding season (typically September through May) which are used to lacerate the skin of the females to facilitate delivery of the pheromones which are secreted through the mental gland, located on the male’s chin.  If the female is willing, she responds by following closely behind the male until he deposits a spermatophore (a gelatinous and conical structure topped with a sperm cap). The female picks up the spermatophore through the cloaca, where the spermatozoa are then released into the spermatheca and stored there until the female expels them to fertilize her eggs. The female deposits between 15 and 120 eggs in a single, clustered layer on the underside of rocks, logs, or other aquatic vegetation in a creek or stream. She will then remain with the eggs for the 4-10 weeks that the eggs require for hatching (dependent on water temperature). The newly hatched salamanders will metamorphose in 1-2 years. They will then become sexually mature at anywhere from 2-4 years of age.


Herping Tips: Southern Two-Lined Salamanders can most often be found by flipping rocks and debris in shallow, flowing creeks and streams during spring and autumn months. They quickly try to escape beneath other debris or into the substrate, so act quickly! Grasp them at the middle of the body or towards the head, as they can drop their tails in an escape attempt.


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.



All photographs by the author. . Instagram: @zacharge


 (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.




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.


 (Northern Rubber Boa- San Mateo County, CA)


(Northern Pacific Rattlesnake- San Mateo County, CA)


 (California Striped Racer- Santa Cruz County, CA)


 (California Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)


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


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


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


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


(California Nightsnake- Santa Cruz County, CA)


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.


(California Alligator Lizard- San Mateo County, CA)


(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.


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


(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).


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


(Sierran Tree Frog- San Mateo County, CA)


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.