Plethodon shermani
Red-legged Salamander
Subgenus: Plethodon
family: Plethodontidae
subfamily: Plethodontinae

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Conservation Status (definitions)
IUCN (Red List) Status Vulnerable (VU)
See IUCN account.
NatureServe Status Use NatureServe Explorer to see status.
Other International Status None
National Status None
Regional Status None


bookcover The following account is modified from Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species, edited by Michael Lannoo (©2005 by the Regents of the University of California), used with permission of University of California Press. The book is available from UC Press.

Plethodon shermani Brimley, 1912
Red-Legged Salamander

David A. Beamer1
Michael J. Lannoo2

1. Historical versus Current Distribution. Red-legged salamanders (Plethodon shermani) are found in the Unicoi and Nantahala mountains in North Carolina. They are considered by Highton and Peabody (2000) to be the Standing Indian, Wayah, Tusquitee, and Unicoi Mountain isolates of the P. jordani complex. There is no evidence that their current distribution differs from their historical distribution.

2. Historical versus Current Abundance. Highton (2003) sampled two populations of red-legged salamanders in or prior to 1973, then re-sampled them in or after 1994 and found evidence of declines in both populations. In the populations from Macon County, North Carolina, red-legged salamander numbers dropped from 31.8/person/visit to 6.0/person/visit (similar sampling effort under similar conditions). Additional sampling will be necessary to determine if these are true declines or natural population fluctuations.

3. Life History Features.

A. Breeding. Reproduction is terrestrial.

i. Breeding migrations. Unlikely; breeding migrations are unknown in any Plethodon species.

ii. Breeding habitat. Unknown.

B. Eggs.

i. Egg deposition sites. Unknown.

ii. Clutch size. Unknown.

C. Direct Development.

i. Brood sites. Unknown.

ii. Parental care. Unknown, but it is likely that females brood, as with other species of Plethodon.

D. Juvenile Habitat. A single juvenile was found with 40 adults in a maple and birch forest on 30 May at Wayah Bald, Macon County, North Carolina (Wood, 1947b).

E. Adult Habitat. Six specimens were collected from beneath stones and logs in a Rhododendreon thicket bordering a little stream at the base of a mountain (Bishop, 1928).

On Wayah Bald, Macon County, North Carolina, red-legged salamanders were found inside and under rotten logs, under sticks and bark, and beneath solid logs. They were often found under the loose bark of prostrate sticks and logs (C.H. Pope, 1928).

F. Home Range Size. Unknown, but small home ranges are typical for Plethodon species.

G. Territories. Selby et al. (1996) observed agonistic behavior in red-legged salamanders.

H. Aestivation/Avoiding Dessication. Red-legged salamanders are active during the summer (C.H. Pope, 1928; Bailey, 1937; D.A.B., personal observations).

I. Seasonal Migrations. Animals likely make vertical migrations, moving from the forest floor to underground sites with the onset of seasonally related cold or dry conditions, then back up to the forest floor with the return of favorable surface conditions.

J. Torpor (Hibernation). During the winter when temperatures were below freezing, red-legged salamanders were not beneath surface cover such as flat stones and logs; in some instances, these exact stones and logs had sheltered salamanders during warmer periods. However, red-legged salamanders were found beneath deeply embedded rocks at this time (D.A.B., personal observations).

K. Interspecific Associations/Exclusions. The following salamanders are reported from Wayah Bald: red-legged salamanders, black-bellied salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus), and Ocoee salamanders (D. ocoee; Hairston, 1949). Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders (Eurycea wilderae) are also associated with red-legged salamanders on Wayah Bald (C.H. Pope, 1928; D.A.B., personal observations).

Red-legged salamanders contact Tellico salamanders (P. aureolus) on the west slope of the Unicoi Mountains, Monroe County, Tennessee. A transect on Sassafras Ridge indicates there is a wide hybrid zone (Highton and Peabody, 2000).

Red-legged salamanders are parapatric with Chattahoochee slimy salamanders (P. chattahoochee) near the Georgia–North Carolina border. A transect along the Tallulah River indicates there is a wide hybrid zone (Highton and Peabody, 2000).

Red-legged salamanders hybridize at all known contacts with Southern Appalachian salamanders (P. teyahalee). In the area between the Standing Indian, Wayah, and Tusquitee isolates of red-legged salamanders, all populations appear to be hybrid swarms (Highton and Peabody, 2000).

In the Nantahala Mountains, North Carolina red-legged salamanders and southern Appalachian salamanders replace one another altitudinally. On two transects there is no elevational overlap, while at a third transect on this mountain there is vertical overlap of 61 m (200 ft; Hairston, 1951).

L. Age/Size at Reproductive Maturity. Unknown.

M. Longevity. Unknown.

N. Feeding Behavior. The following food items are reported from specimens from Grandfather Mountain, Avery County, North Carolina: Formicidae, Araneida, lepidopteran larvae, coleopteran larvae, Collembola, Diplopoda, Chilopoda, Acarina, Stylommatophora, dipteran larvae, Annelida, Tipulidae, Lepidoptera, shed skin, Ichneumonidae, Diptera, Gryllacrididae, Cicadellidae, Coleoptera, Cantharidae, Chrysomelidae, Stylommatophora, Isopoda, Cynipodea, Hymenoptera, Phoridae, Cydnidae, Scarabaeidae, Carabidae, Curculionidae, Chelonethida, Vespidae, Gryllidae, Simuliidae, Histeridae, Pentatomidae, Elateridae, Mycetophilidae, Culicidae, Aphididae, Phalacridae, Staphylinidae, Fungivoridae, Hemiptera, and Scaphididae. Ants, mites, and springtails were eaten less frequently by large individuals, while millipedes, earthworms, and craneflies were eaten more frequently. In general, the number of different food items increases in larger individuals (Whitaker and Rubin, 1971).

O. Predators. A spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) was found to have eaten a member of the P. jordani complex (either a southern gray-cheeked salamander [P. metcalfi] or a red-legged salamander; Bruce, 1972a).

P. Anti-Predator Mechanisms. Nocturnal. Secretive. All members of the genus Plethodon produce noxious skin secretions (Brodie, 1977). Members of the P. jordani complex frequently become immobile when initially contacted. Red-legged salamanders were included in a field study on immobility, however it is not possible to separate their behavior from the other members of this complex in this published data set. Immobility may increase survival by making the salamander less likely to be detected, especially by visually oriented predators (Dodd, 1989).

Q. Diseases. Unknown.

R. Parasites. Unknown.

4. Conservation. Red-legged salamanders are not protected in North Carolina, the only state within their range. Among members of the P. jordani complex, red-legged salamanders have a relatively small and disjunct distribution. These salamanders are restricted to higher elevations and to suitable habitat at these elevations, and populations may be separated by stretches of lower uninhabited areas. Within their range, there are several federal and state properties that contain suitable habitat for these salamanders.

Red-legged salamanders are relatively resilient to disturbances such as those associated with timbering operations and frequently are found in second-growth forests and relatively small, fragmented woodlots (D.A.B., personal observations). Bishop (1928) reported red-legged salamanders to be scarce on the higher slopes of Wayah Bald, due to dry conditions that were exacerbated by razor-back hogs. Red-legged salamanders are now abundant there (D.A.B., personal observations), so it appears that populations on the upper slopes of Wayah Bald may be more robust than they were in 1926.

As with all species of Plethodon, red-legged salamanders do not migrate to breeding grounds and they do not have large home ranges. Thus, they can exist in habitats of smaller size than many other amphibian species. Conservation activities that promote mature closed-canopy forests should benefit this species.

Acknowledgments. Thanks to Richard Highton, who reviewed this account and gave us the benefit of his insight and experience.

1David A. Beamer
Department of Biology
East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina 27858

2Michael J. Lannoo
Muncie Center for Medical Education
Indiana University School of Medicine
MT 201
Ball State University
Muncie, Indiana 47306

Literature references for Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species, edited by Michael Lannoo, are here.

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Citation: AmphibiaWeb. 2017. <> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 26 Mar 2017.

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