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Red Hills Salamander

Kristin Bakkegard, Samford University
Red Hills Salamander
The Red Hills salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti) is a large land-dwelling salamander that was discovered in Alabama in 1960 and formally recognized by the scientific community in 1961. This salamander is endemic to Alabama, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It has a small range in an area between the Alabama and Conecuh Rivers that spans just six counties: Butler, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Monroe, and Wilcox. The salamander gets its common name from the Red Hills, a region of Alabama's East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic section that extends in a narrow band roughly 10 to 25 miles in width (north-south) and runs from southern Georgia across Alabama and into Mississippi. The Red Hills are characterized by steep bluffs, 150 to 450 feet high, deep ravines and rolling hills that traverse the otherwise flat coastal plain.
The first specimen of the Red Hills salamander was collected by self-taught naturalist and biologist Leslie Hubricht, who was conducting a scientific survey for land snails in Butler County near McKenzie. He stopped under a magnolia tree to look in the moist leaves and collected what he described as a strange salamander. Hubricht sent it to University of Maryland herpetologist Richard Highton, who then described it as a new genus and species. He selected the genus name from the Greek words phaios (meaning "dark-colored") and gnathos (meaning "jaw") and the species name for its discoverer. It took another three years before additional specimens were discovered, because unlike many other terrestrial salamanders, Red Hills salamanders are not found under rocks or logs but instead live in burrows.
Red Hills Salamander
Like green salamanders, Red Hills salamanders are amphibians in the family Plethodontidae, the lungless salamanders, so named because they breathe entirely through their moist skin, which is a uniform slightly purplish to chocolate brown color. They grow to a maximum size of just over 10.5 inches (~ 27 centimeters) in total length (from tip of snout to tip of tail) and are the largest fully terrestrial salamander in the United States. They have an elongate body, a prehensile tail, and short legs, even for a salamander. Other adaptations for their burrowing lifestyle include a thick skull, modified eyelids, and small nostrils. Males and females generally grow to the same total length, but they differ in body proportions. Females have longer tails, shorter bodies, and thinner heads. The average weight for males is just under 0.4 ounces (~10 grams) and for females is 0.3 ounces (~ 8.5 grams).
Red Hills salamanders live in burrows typically found on steep (often almost vertical), heavily shaded, hardwood- and shrub-covered slopes associated with one of three geologic formations, the Tallahatta, Hatchetigbee, and Nanafalia. These formations are composed of a crumbly siltstone or mudstone with many cracks and crevices. Red Hills salamanders prefer north facing slopes because they are moister and cooler. Burrows are branched and interconnected and normally extend at least two to three feet into the slope. Burrow entrances are nickel to quarter-sized, with an oval shape and smooth edges. Red Hills salamanders have never been observed digging a burrow, but they most likely use existing tree-root channels and cracks. Salamander burrows are often found in clusters because animals congregate in suitable habitats rather than spreading out evenly across the landscape. Patchy distribution and habitat loss have resulted in low rates of interbreeding between animals in these clusters and produced five genetically distinct groups.
Red Hills Salamander In Burrow
Red Hills salamanders can be found at burrow entrances all months of the year but most frequently when temperatures are above 65° Fahrenheit (~ 18° Celsius). They are primarily nocturnal and sit at the entrance at night just barely extending out of it. Sometimes their faces can be seen just inside the burrow entrance during the day as well. Only one salamander at a time typically sits at an entrance, even where multiple burrows are found. Red Hills salamanders are only very rarely found on the forest floor away from their burrow. Sometimes other salamanders, such as the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), southeastern slimy salamander (Plethodon grobmani), and southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera), use Red Hills salamander burrows.
Red Hills salamanders are stealth predators, meaning that they wait and ambush prey as it passes their burrow entrance. They either grab prey with their jaws, or if tiny, catch it at the end of their short tongue. Red Hills salamanders eat a variety of invertebrates, including spiders, millipedes, land snails, earthworms, beetles, ants, and small insect larvae. The salamanders are most certainly food for larger predators, such as raccoons, opossums, feral pigs, owls, and some species of snake. When threatened, these salamanders display behaviors such as gaping, biting, writhing, body flipping, and tail lashing. Male salamanders are often found with many bite scars from other Red Hills salamanders, perhaps from male-male combat, although females are sometimes found with bite scars as well. Unlike some other salamanders, they do not have poison glands.
Entirely terrestrial, Red Hills salamanders do not reproduce in water, unlike most other amphibians. Females lay a cluster of 6 to 16 eggs that is attached by a short stalk to the roof of the burrow or a nearby crack in a rock. Incubation time is probably no more than two months, and the eggs hatch out into tiny versions of the adults. Skeletochronology (counting growth rings in leg bones) indicates that Red Hills salamanders live to approximately 11 years of age. One salamander, captured as an adult in 1978 by a collector from the Cincinnati Zoo, was still alive as of June 2014.
In 1976, the Red Hills salamander was listed as a federally threatened species owing to its small range and habitat loss. Threats include habitat fragmentation caused by clear-cutting slopes or the tops of slopes at sites where burrows are present. Clear-cutting dries out slopes and reduces the amount of leaf litter required to support their invertebrate prey. In 2000, a third-grade class at Fairhope Elementary School successfully petitioned the state legislature to have the Red Hills salamander designated as the official state amphibian of Alabama. The majority of the salamanders' range was located on private property until 2010, when the Forever Wild Land Trust and the Alabama Chapter of the Nature Conservancy together purchased two tracts of land, totaling 4,376 acres, in Monroe County.
Additional Resources
Apodaca, Joseph J., Leslie J. Rissler, and James C. Godwin. "Population Structure and Gene Flow in a Heavily Disturbed Habitat: Implications for the Management of the Imperiled Red Hills Salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti).” Conservation Genetics 13 (August 2012): 913-23.
Bakkegard, Kristin A. "Activity Patterns of Red Hills Salamanders (Phaeognathus hubrichti) at Their Burrow Entrances." Copeia 2 (August 2002): 851-56.
Davenport, Lawrence J. "The Red Hills Salabration." Alabama Heritage 102 (Fall 2011): 55-56.
Godwin, James. "Red Hills Salamander Habitat Delineation, Breeding Bird Surveys, and Habitat Restoration Recommendations on Commercial Timberlands." Report to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources State Wildlife Grants Program. 2008; http://www.alnhp.org/reports/Red_Hills_SWG_Final_Report.pdf.
Highton, Richard. "A New Genus of Lungless Salamander from the Coastal Plain of Alabama." Copeia 1 (March 1961): 65-68.
Means, D. Bruce. "Notes on the Reproductive Biology of the Alabama Red Hills Salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti)." Contemporary Herpetology 3 (September 2003): 1-5; http://www.cnah.org/ch/ch/2003/3/index.htm
Published:  March 26, 2015   |   Last updated:  December 19, 2016