By Susan Hamilton
In Greek mythology, a salamander was a fiery lizard with magical abilities to both create and stoke fires. The fire never harmed the salamander itself; and Chinese emperors were reported to have fire-retardant coats made of salamander hair.
In reality, the magical powers equated to woodland salamanders probably stem from their oft-favored hiding places: logs that, when thrown on a fire, suddenly became inhabitable for the moisture-loving amphibians, which would emerge then seek a hasty retreat.
Webster’s Salamander, Plethodon websteri, lives up to its reputation, at least in color, with ember-like hues decorating its smooth skin. When disturbed, its reddish-brown body is seen wriggling beneath a log or pile of leaves on the forest floor, where it seeks moisture and cool temperatures.
Webster’s Salamander is found only in six isolated patches of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. In South Carolina, where it is considered an endangered species, it makes its home in McCormick County. Despite it’s endangered status, sightings are not unusual for the diligent visitor at Steven’s Creek Heritage Preserve where a thriving population exists. Otherwise, it is rare due to declining habitat.
The 230-acre heritage preserve is regaled for harboring a variety of rare and endangered plants, and it often lures visitors who enjoy the many spring ephemerals found on the 1.3-mile hiking loop trail. Taking the time to overturn rocks or ruffle up the leaf litter, however, can unveil the elusive Webster’s Salamander, making the trip all the more enjoyable.
Salamanders are similar to lizards but lack the scaly, protective layer found on their reptilian cousins. Instead, they have a permeable skin that can easily dry out, requiring them to seek out cooler habitats. Many are at home in streams and rivers. Webster’s Salamander, however, is completely terrestrial, and even it’s young do not experience an aquatic larval stage. As with all salamanders, it is best to avoid handling these reptiles as bug sprays or lotions applied to our hands are readily absorbed through their porous skin and can cause them harm.
Measuring less than 3 ½ inches long, this woodland salamander appears with both striped and unstriped patterns, the former typically more brown in color with a reddish-orange dorsal stripe running from the head to the tail; and the latter, ranging from brown to red. Both varieties have a variegated underside with black, white and reddish-orange mottling. This species closely resembles the Southern Zigzag salamander and is generally differentiated only by location.
Unlike many salamanders, Webster’s is most active in cool weather, a time of year when most other salamanders hibernate. It is often found on steep, north-facing rocky slopes in the fall, winter and early spring months. During the summer months, it probably seeks cooler, deeper crevices. A favorite food – and a one abundantly found in the hardwood forests where it lives – is termites.
Webster’s salamander is a great reminder of the need to protect our natural areas. In specific locations, the species thrives. However, with only six isolated known locations, it is a species that could easily disappear. Tread lightly as you enjoy the woods, as other’s lives depend upon it.