Flatwoods Salamander - Ambystoma cingulatum
By Susan Coleman Fedor, SC Master Naturalist
Split alert: The Flatwoods salamander category was split into two species in 2009 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The species separation is thought to date back millions of years when the topography of the continent was very different. The Apalachicola River system in Georgia is designated as the division between the two species. The Reticulated is located to the west, and the Frosted is to the east of this system.
The Frosted Flatwoods salamander is found in South Carolina. It is small (3.5-5.5 inches), with short legs, a long rounded tail, no neck, and may have highly variable markings that include specks or gray cross bands.
Their basic diet consists of invertebrates (earthworms and small crustaceans), insects, and zoo plankton.
Adults are nocturnal and subterranean, living in root channels or crayfish burrows. Living underground, they only emerge during periods of heavy rains. Courtship occurs in the shallow pond areas of the breeding sites. Other than migration to and from these sites, this is a solitary species. Their secretive habits make population estimates difficult.
Current range includes coastal South Carolina, Southern Georgia, and Northern Florida. Its habitat has been reduced to 20% of its original size.
The species selects seasonally wet, pine flatlands and pine savannahs. This salamander is found under logs and decaying vegetation near small, seasonal ponds.
The species breeds in acidic conditions (pH 3.6-5.6), typically tannin-stained ephemeral wetlands with an overstory of pond cypress, black gum, red maple, sweet gum, and sweet bay. Midstory may include myrtle leaved holly, Chapman’s St. John’s Wort, titi, and sweet pepperbush. Groundcover includes beakrushes, sedges and blue stem.
The species breeds in shallow ponds. Francis Beidler Forest is a typical habitat. October to January is the breeding period as they migrate to wetlands during rain events associated with passing cold fronts. Females lay eggs in small groups in clumps of moist vegetation or in entrances to crayfish burrows. Hatching occurs in response to rising water levels in about three weeks. Larval stage lasts three to four months, and migration occurs in March and April.
Formerly, the Frosted Flatwoods Salamander was found in sandy, seasonally wet, fire maintained longleaf pine and wiregrass communities. These have been replaced by slash pine silviculture or destroyed altogether by urban development and agriculture. Because summer wild fires have been suppressed, a dense tangle of hardwood shrubs has developed, suppressing natives and ephemeral wetland communities further impacting their habitat. Because of these conditions, current populations are widely separated and restricted to isolated areas thus endangering reproduction and habitat. This is particularly evident in South Carolina.
A. cingulatum is one of the only terrestrial breeding salamanders in North American that abandons its eggs. A. cingulatum has a defense action where they roll their tails. Up to 77-84% of the older larvae of the species have damaged tails due to attacks from invertebrates. So, it is likely that this behavior is a life saving response.
Recommendations for conservation include active restoration of habitat: mesic longleaf pine-wiregrass Flatwoods associated with ephemeral wetlands. Also, recommended is maintenance of these areas by replicating natural phenomena especially lightning season fires.
Photo by Dirk Stevenson.