Total length up to 144 mm for males, up to 151 mm for females. Slightly elongated head, with two large kidney-shaped paratoid glands. The body has 11-13 costal grooves on either side. The tail is square in cross-section. One double row of poison glands runs down the center of the back. One single row of poison glands runs along either side of the body onto the tail. Usually black or brown-black, but the subspecies Salamandra atra aurorae has a bright coloration on the head, back, and dorsal side of the extremities. This coloration can consist of continuous patches or be spotted or blotched. It can vary in color from whitish or yellow to greenish or gray. Males have a slightly more pronounced cloaca than females.
Distribution and Habitat
Country distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Serbia, Switzerland
The Alpine salamander is an endemic of the alpine arc with some isolated areas in the Dinaric Alps. In earlier times, the whole Alps were considered to be inhabited by a single species. With the declaration of the new species S. lanzai, the situation in the W. Alps is no longer clear. The range of S. atra range probably does not exceed the Rhône valley in the region of the Lake Geneva (W. Switzerland). The northern limit of the area follows the chalk Alps through Central Switzerland - Säntis Massif - Wengen near Isny im Allgäu (Baden-Württemberg, F.R.G.) - Nesselwang - Lenggries - Wendelstein - Rauschberg - Wolfgangsee - Lunz - Schneeberg (50 km from Vienna). The southern limit is less exactly known; all indications from the Savoyan Alps, the Valle d'Aosta and the Swiss Ticino are uncertain or probably wrong. Some known sites along the southern limit are Passo del Spluga - Alpi Orobie - Massif of Adamello - Monte Pasubio south of Trento - southern border of the eastern Dolomites - Bosco del Cansiglio east of Belluno - S Carnian Alps. The range turns to the south through higher mountains of Slovenia and Croatia to the S Dinarids. Only some isolated massifs in Bosnia, Montenegro and N. Albania (Dragobya) are colonized. The eastern border goes through the Karawanken _ koralpe - Fischbach Alps - Schneeberg. Some parts of the Central Alps with a dry climate are avoided: Valais and Engadine in Switzerland, Valtelline and Vinschgau/Valle Venosta in Italy. An element of mystery surrounds some old and not absolutely certain records in the French/Swiss Jura, which could not be confirmed in recent times. Salamandra a. prenjensis occurs in the Cvrsnica and Prenj mountains near Sarajevo, but the validity of this subspecies is very doubtful. The range of the subspecies S. a. aurorae is extremely small (less than 50 square kilometers), situated at the southern border of the total area between Trento and Asiago in NE Italy. The habitat consists of mixed decidious and coniferous forests on cretacious limestone at altitudes between 1300 and 1800 m (a.s.l.). The typical habitats of the alpine salamander are alpine humid meadows and woodlands, where it lives in cracks, crevices or burrows, only to emerge at night or after rainfall. The species hibernates, depending on the altitude, for a period of 6-8 months (Noellert and Noellert 1992).The lowest known sites are at identical altitudes in Austria and Switzerland: 430 m (a.s.l.). South of the Alps the species is rarely found below 900 m (a.s.l.). The highest record sites are in Switzerland, at 2430 m, and in Austria/Carinthia at 2800 m (Gasc 1997).
Life History, Abundance, Activity, and Special Behaviors
Salamandra atra is a fully terrestrial species. Mating involves a ventral amplexus by the male, followed by the deposition of the spermatophore. One embryo develops in each of the two uteri. The developing young first feed on fertilized, and later on unfertilized ova in the uteri. Later in development, a zona trophica develops on the border between oviduct and uterus, which continuously provides the young with a cellular material that serves as food. The young develop extremely large external gills. Gestation takes 2 years between 650 and 1000 m, and 3 years between 1400 and 1700 m elevation. The terrestrial, fully metamorphosed young are 40-50 mm total length upon birth. Longevity is at least 10 years.
This species, although cryptic, can be quite abundant. This becomes evident after heavy rainfall, when the animals become active and leave their hideouts. Densities of 2380 individuals per ha are known to occur. Population densities are lower in less suitable habitats, such as relatively dry areas. When threatened, they excrete a poisonous liquid from their skin glands (Noellert and Noellert 1992).
Trends and Threats
In the most parts of the N Alps in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, the species is still very abundant and not considered endangered. In dryer regions of the S Alps, it is much more difficult to find, with status unknown. The subspecies S. a. aurorae is highly endangered in its very small range. Possible threats to the alpine salamander are the destruction of habitats by tourism, in lower regions intensifying and expanding of agriculture, and killing by road traffic. Negative effects of air pollution, rain and soil acidification are likely though not proved (Gasc 1997).
Possible reasons for amphibian decline
General habitat alteration and loss
Intensified agriculture or grazing
Disturbance or death from vehicular traffic
Gasc, J.-P. (1997). Atlas of Amphibians and Reptiles in Europe. Societas Europaea Herpetologica, Bonn, Germany.
Griffiths, R.A. (1996). Newts and Salamanders of Europe. T. and A. D. Poyser, London.
Nöllert, A. and Nöllert, C. (1992). Die Amphibien Europas. Franckh-Kosmos Verlags-GmbH and Company, Stuttgart.
Stumpel-Rieks, S. E. (1992). Nomina Herpetofaunae Europaeae. AULA-Verlag, Wiesbaden.
Written by Arie van der Meijden (amphibia AT arievandermeijden.nl), Research associate, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley
First submitted 1999-12-30
Edited by M. J. Mahoney (2002-05-25)
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