Lungs present, but reduced. Vomerine teeth in two short and widely separated series. Premaxillary fontanelle present. Parotoids and costal grooves well-developed. Toes five. Body robust. Parotoids clearly visible. Labial fold flat, usually absent or reduced, sometimes developed. Eyes large. On each side of the body there are 11-13 costal grooves. Coloration is yellow-brownish to dark olive and grey-greenish; some individuals have a dark-spotted pattern on dark-olive background. Coloration changes depending on the environment. Aquatic adults may be darker than terrestrial individuals; coloration of the latter becomes lighter also with an increase of temperature. The tail is laterally flat, or "sword shaped", slightly longer or more or less equal to body length, slightly tapering on the tip. Males have a relatively higher and longer tail than females; during the reproductive period the male caudal fin fold is much higher and with a few undulations. The legs and head are more robust in males. Sexual differences are more pronounced during the reproductive period. Larvae overwinter, and become completely developed with brownish claws. Larvae are generally of the rheophilous type but have a more robust body than "typical brook" larvae.
Distribution and Habitat
Country distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: China, Kazakhstan
The salamander is documented only from the mountain system of the Junggarian Alatau in Southern Kazakhstan and North-Western Xinjiang. In Kazakhstan, the species is certainly known only from 27 localities in the western, central and southern periphery of the Junggarian Alatau and its spurs. The distribution is associated mainly with relic mountain coniferous forests (or the areas where the forests have existed in the past), connected with the alpine, subalpine, forest-meadow and forest-meadow-steppe belts. There it lives in the headwaters of small mountain streams and brooks. All the localities occupy flat plateaus with a dense network of permanent streams.
Life History, Abundance, Activity, and Special Behaviors
The salamanders inhabit cool brooks (summer temperatures ca. +5 - +18oC), where the density may attain several dozens of individuals per 100 m. However, usually the density is much lower, and in general it is a very rare species. The hibernation takes place from the end of September or the beginning of October to the end of April or the beginning of June, depending on altitude. Reproduction occurs soon after the snow and ice melt. It extends from the end of April to the beginning of August. Ranodon sibiricus tends to reproduce in stream sources or in small brooks at the same sites year after year. The clutch consists of a pair of egg sacs connected to each other by a mucous stalk which serves to attach the clutch to a stone. Each sac usually contains 38-53 eggs. The larvae probably hibernate more than once; their development is slow. The main food of larvae consists of stream invertebrates, but stagnant water prey are also consumed regularly. Aquatic prey comprises 35.9-73.8% of the adult food items. This corresponds to the fact that adults spend a considerable part of their life in water.
Trends and Threats
There is continuing constriction of the range of Ranodon sibiricus, whose current distribution is estimated as about 160 square kilometers. Suitable habitats are not numerous on the Junggarian Alatau, but the salamander was proved to be absent even from many of these. It has been hypothesized that the ancestors of the genus Ranodon were lowland salamanders with pond-type larvae, which were shifted to mountains by the overall aridization of the lowlands of Kazakhstan in the Cenozoic. On the other hand, the larvae of R. sibiricus are not typical "brook-type" larvae. These ancestral, "underdeveloped" adaptations to life in brooks, together with some biological peculiarities (high site-fidelity, low rate of population turnover, and specialization to habitat) may represent an important constraint for the successful dispersal of the Semirechensk Salamander in steep and swift mountain streams. Populations of R. sibiricus live on the periphery of the mountain system of the Junggarian Alatau, not penetrating inwards, which supports this idea of a constraint. This, in turn, should increase the vulnerability of this species in the changing environment and result in its extinction from vast areas, where former lowland pond habitats have become unavailable, whereas mountain brook habitats have not become fully available as yet. Range constriction in historical time evidently result mainly from anthropogenic factors, such as destruction of forests by people and cattle, landscape amelioration, collecting salamanders for commercial and scientific purposes, and the local practices of fishing. Use of this species in Chinese traditional medicine seems to have led to the extinction of many populations in Kazakhstan and, evidently, almost total extinction of the species in Xinjiang.
Relation to Humans
The species does not form populations in human settlements. However, the adult salamanders display high site-fidelity, and have been seen in polluted brooks and in areas destroyed by cattle. This increases the species vulnerability. Sometimes the salamanders are collected for scientific aims and pet trade (illegally). In the past, they were also collected for Chinese traditional medicine.
Possible reasons for amphibian decline
General habitat alteration and loss
Habitat modification from deforestation, or logging related activities
Intensified agriculture or grazing
The species is in the worst condition among all the amphibians of the former Soviet Union. It needs immediate and effective measures for conservation. Without creation of a special nature reserve, it may become extinct in the near future.
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Written by Sergius L. Kuzmin (ipe51 AT yahoo.com), Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow
First submitted 1999-09-13
Edited by Kellie Whittaker (2007-12-06)
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