Desmognathus planiceps
Flat-headed Salamander
Subgenus: Desmognathus
family: Plethodontidae
subfamily: Plethodontinae
Species Description: Tilley SG, Eriksen RL, Katz LA 2007 Systematics of dusky salamanders, Desmognathus (Caudata: Plethodontidae), in the mountain and Piedmont regions of virginia and North Carolina, USA. Zool J Linn Soc 152:115-130,

© 2015 Will Lattea (1 of 5)
Conservation Status (definitions)
IUCN (Red List) Status
NatureServe Status Use NatureServe Explorer to see status.
Other International Status None
National Status None
Regional Status None


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Desmognathus planiceps is a salamander species with a broad and flat head, stout and flattened body, and laterally flattened tail. The average snout-vent length of the species ranges from 20 to 63 mm with some male individuals described as exceeding 120 mm in total length. The species has a “strongly depressed snout” with the gradient lasting from the eyes to the end of the snout. Enlarged cheeks have been described along with “pointed” mental glands under the edge of the jaw. Two grooves have been identified on the head of the salamander species. The sinuous groove extends form the superior edge of the gular fold to the eye. The vertical groove extends from the sinuous groove to the junction of the jaw. Desmognathus planiceps has a large body that has 14 costal grooves and a range of 3 - 5 intercostal grooves that line the body. The vent is “slightly raised.” The legs are stout like the body the digits have minimal webbing. The relative finger lengths are 1 < 4 < 2 < 3 and relative toe lengths are 1 < 5 < 2 < 3 < 4. The tail has a slender keel in the dorsal side with a rounded ventral side (Newman 1955).

Desmognathus planiceps looks very similar to many species of the genus Desmognathus, including D. fuscus, D. monticola, and D. quadramaculatus but can be differentiated by D. planiceps having a flattened head, dorsal makings (see next paragraph), and tan spots on the venter. Desmognathus planiceps and D. fuscus were considered the same species and genetics is the best way to differentiate between the two. However, there are minor morphological differences between the two, including tooth morphology, in which D. planiceps has “broader” premaxillary teeth than D. fuscus, along with a “zone of distal crown expansion” closer to the tooth base than D. fuscus (Tilley et al. 2008). Desmognathus planiceps also has a similar morphology to D. marmoratus, mainly due to the flattened head. These species can be differentiated by the “inconspicuous inner naris, compressed tail, and absence of a premaxillary fontanelle of the latter” (Newman 1955).

Desmognathus planiceps is a brown (variation between shade of brown) colored salamander with a few distinct markings. The most noticeable marking is the dorsal marking. This marking is a black outlined, reddish-brown band that extend from the most dorsal region of the gular fold to the posterior section of the vent. Within the band are dark spots that line up along the mid-dorsal line. Other distinct markings are the yellow spots on the edge of the band above the forelimb junction with the body and the black spot on the center of the posterior section of a reddish-brown head. Dark-bordered light blotches line the tail region. There is brown and whitish-grey mottling on the sides of the body that stops abruptly on the outer edge of the belly. The sides of the tail have a row of light spots with dark borders. The ventral side of D. planiceps is white-tan and plain other than two sections. The first section, throat and gular fold region, is mottled with tan spots, while the other has the same mottling, except it occurs posterior to the hind limbs (Newman 1955).

There is evidence of sexual dimorphism with males having well-developed heads (Martof and Rose 1962). Males have a more pointed mental glad than females do. There is also variation in the ventral mottling with a select few individuals with full mottled ventral side (Newman 1955).

Distribution and Habitat

Country distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: United States

U.S. state distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: Virginia


View distribution map using BerkeleyMapper.
Desmognathus planiceps is found in southwestern Virginia within the Blue Ridge Mountains (Newman 1995). The distribution of this species is concentrated within Floyd County (Tilley et al. 2008) and Patrick County, Virginia (Mitchell 2013). However, the species may extend into the Piedmont region of North Carolina (Tilley et al. 2008).

The species was collected in shallow, active streams that were cool in temperature with heavy shading (Newman 1995).

Life History, Abundance, Activity, and Special Behaviors
Not much is known about the life history and reproduction of D. planiceps. However, members of the Desmognathus genus have internal fertilization via spermatophores, terrestrial eggs, and aquatic larvae.

On 27 August 1955, a 47 mm (snout-vent length) gravid female was found to have 19 large eggs filled with yolk. The eggs measured 2 – 4 mm in diameter (Newman 1955).

Trends and Threats
Between 1962 and 2008, D. planiceps was classified as a subspecies of D. fuscus. Although there is little literature on the threats to the D. planiceps, there is literature that expresses the cost of urbanization on the D. fuscus species, falling within the timeframe above. Urbanization and road building are the two largest anthropogenic threats to D. fuscus (Orser and Shure 1972).

Possible reasons for amphibian decline

General habitat alteration and loss
Disturbance or death from vehicular traffic
Habitat fragmentation

The species authority is: Newman, W. B. 1955. “Desmognathus planiceps, a new salamander from Virginia.” The Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 45:83-86

The most closely related species to Desmognathus planiceps is Desmognathus fuscus. Between 1962 and 2008, D. planiceps was considered part of the D. fuscus species complex. However, maximum parsimony and maximum likelihood analysis of a fragment of Cyt b and cluster analysis of 22 allozyme loci showed that D. planiceps was genetically different from D. fuscus. Morphological differences were also found (Tilley et al. 2008). Other closely related species include Desmognathus carolinensis and Desmognathus monticola.

The genus name, Desmognathus, means “ligament jaw.” The specific epithet, planiceps, means “flat head.”

Desmognathus planiceps was discovered and described by Newman in 1955. In 1962, Martof and Rose placed D. planiceps within the D. fuscus species complex because of confusion involving the storage of the type specimens. This placement was reversed in 2008 by Tilley, Eriksen, and Katz (Mitchell 2013).


Martlof, B. S., Rose, F. L. (1962). ''The taxonomic status of the Plethodontid salamander, Desmognathus planiceps.'' Copeia, 1962, 215-216.

Mitchell, J.C. (2013). ''Emmett Reid Dunn and the early history of herpetology in Virginia.'' Banisteria, 41, 27-39.

Newman W.B. (1955). ''Desmognathus planiceps, a new salamander from Virginia.'' Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 45, 83–86.

Orser, P.N., Shure, D.J. (1972). ''Effects of urbanization on the salamander Desmognathus fuscus fuscus.'' Ecology, 53, 1148-1154.

Tilley, S.G., Eriksen, R.L., Katz, L.A. (2008). ''Systematics of dusky salamanders, Desmognathus (Caudata: Plethodontidae), in the mountain and Piedmont regions of Virginia and North Carolina, USA.'' Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 152, 115-130.

Written by Jacob F. Brumley (Jacob.brumley228 AT, Western Kentucky University
First submitted 2017-06-02
Edited by Ann T. Chang and Jarrett Johnson (2017-06-02)

Species Account Citation: AmphibiaWeb 2017 Desmognathus planiceps: Flat-headed Salamander <> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed Oct 22, 2017.

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Citation: AmphibiaWeb. 2017. <> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 22 Oct 2017.

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