Desmognathus aeneus is a small terrestrial salamander of the North American Southeast. Adults have dark bellies and a chestnut to yellow dorsal stripe flanked by darker sides. The dorsal stripe is often wavy and occasionally consists of chevrons or “herring bone” segments. Adults have 13-14 costal groves with a total length of 38-57 mm between the snout and tail tip (Petranka 1998).
Like all members of the plethodontid family, D. aeneus do not have lungs and have a nasolabial groove which runs from the nares to the dorsal lip.
Distribution and Habitat
Country distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: United States
U.S. state distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee
The range of Desmognathus aeneus is patchy from far southwestern North Carolina through central Alabama. There is a large western Alabama population, as well as isolated populations in Georgia and South Carolina (Petranka 1998; Livingston et al. 1995). The northern extent of its range is probably marked by the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina and Tennessee (Jones 1981).
They are found in leaf litter along seepage areas of streams and springs in hardwood forests, and their egg masses are often found beneath patches of moss (Jones 1981).
Life History, Abundance, Activity, and Special Behaviors
Desmognathus aeneus is characterized as having direct development, which does not contain a free-living larval stage. Along with a precocious adult morphology at birth, D. aeneus also lacks substantial gills or a caudal fin, and forms eyelids as an embryo (Wake 1966; Marks and Collazo 1988; Collazo and Marks 1989; Marks and Collazo 1998).
These features combined indicate that D. aeneus is a true direct developing salamander. This unique life history is shared with only one other member of its genus, Desmognathus wrighti. All other members of the genus exhibit the standard biphasic amphibian lifestyle with aquatic larvae and terrestrial or semi-terrestrial adults. Unlike many direct developing frogs or bolitoglossine and plethodontine salamanders, the development of D. aeneus is associated with little developmental repatterning. The embryo develops a hyobranchial apparatus, lateral line system, and limbs that at least partially resemble the larval development of metamorphosing desmognathines (Marks 1994; Wake et al. 1987; Marks et al. 1992). The development of these features is dramatically altered in the direct developing members of the plethodontine and bolitoglossine tribes (reviewed in Wake and Hanken 1996).
In their revision of the desmognathine salamander phylogeny Tom Titus and Allan Larson (1996)
placed both species of direct developing Desmognathus (D. aeneus and D. wrighti) as basal to the genus (see Tree of Life web page). This positioning along with the placement of the direct developing Phaeognathus as the closest out-group suggests that direct development is the ancestral condition for the genus. This controversial finding is unique in claiming that metamorphosis has re-evolved in the evolution of desmognathine salamanders.
Desmognathus aeneus young hatch between mid-June and mid-July. The clutch sizes range from 8-15 eggs. Their eggs are large with white embryos that can be seen through a transparent jelly coat and associated membranes.
The adults primarily feed on arthropods with beetle larvae (Staphylinidae and Carabidae) its most common food source (Donavan and Folkerts 1972).
Adult stomachs have also contained collembolas, arachnids, immature diptera, and even other D. aeneus, although cannibalism is thought to be uncommon (Jones 1981; Donavan and Folkerts1972).
The reproductive behavior of Desmognathus aeneus is similar to its congeners. Like all plethodontids the desmognathine salamanders use a tail-straddling walk to transfer a spermatophore from the male to the female. This walk is the culmination of an elaborate courtship ritual that involves inputs from both the female and male salamanders (see Verrell and Mabry 2000).
Unlike most other plethodontids, D. aeneus along with D. wrighti use a “prolonged biting phase,” in which the male bites the female while forcefully restraining her. This biting is used to transfer male pheromones to the female and is associated with vigorous rhythmic thrashing of the head (Promislow 1987).
Trends and Threats
Desmognathus aeneus has a Global Heritage Status of G3G4 (16Oct2001) (natureserve.org).
It is described as moderately threatened and declining due to its patchy distribution and habitat preferences. Current logging practices and habitat loss have raised concern for its status in Tennessee (Redmond and Scott 1996)
and Alabama (Folkerts 1968).
While there is evidence that populations of this species vacillate widely in density (Hairston and Wiley 1993)
it is unlikely that these populations can survive the dried habitat of clear-cut forests (Folkert 1968).
Possible reasons for amphibian decline
General habitat alteration and loss
Habitat modification from deforestation, or logging related activities
This species was featured in the News of the Week on August, 30, 2021:
Despite lacking specialized climbing structures, a wide range of salamanders are known to climb vegetation, trees, or rocks. Their ability to cling and climb allows these salamanders access to more food resources, to more suitable microclimates, and to escape predators. O'Donnell and Deban (2021) explored what factors contribute to this ability across a wide range of size, morphology, and ecological niches in salamanders. They found that the adhesive nature of their mucus coating was a major factor, but that cling ability also was associated with body mass and the amount of body contact area utilized, which include feet, tail, belly, and ventral surface of their head, to increase cling. The best clingers in their experiments were the small plethodontid salamanders, such as Batrachoseps attenuatus, Desmognathus aeneus, D. ocoee, Eurycea guttolineata, and E. wilderae. However, plethodontid salamanders in general, like large salamander Desmognathus quadramaculatus, were comparable or exceed the cling ability of arboreal and scansorial frogs. (AChang)
Beachy, C. K. (1993). ''Differences in variation in egg size for several species of salamanders (Amphibia: Caudata) that use different larval environments.'' Brimleyana, 18, 71-82.
Collazo, A. and Marks, S. B. (1989). ''Development and evolution in two species of plethodontid salamanders with differing life histories.'' American Zoologist, 29(4), 86A.
Donavan, L. A. and Folkerts, G. W. (1972). ''Food of the Seepage Salamander Desmognathus aeneus.'' Herpetologica, 28(1), 35-37.
Folkerts, G. W. (1968). The genus Desmognathus Baird (Amphibia: Plethodontidae) in Alabama. Ph.D. dissertation. Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
Hairston, N. G. (1980). ''Species packing in the salamander genus Desmognathus: what are the interspecific interactions involved?'' American Naturalist, 15(3), 354-366.
Hairston, N. G., Sr., and Wiley, R. H. (1993). ''No decline in salamander (Amphibia: Caudata) populations: a twenty-year study in the Southern Appalachians.'' Brimleyana, (18), 59-64.
Harrison, J. R. (1992). ''Desmognathus aeneus (Brown and Bishop). Cherokee Salamander.'' Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, 534.1-534.4.
Jones, R. L. (1982). ''Distribution and ecology of the Seepage Salamander Desmognathus aeneus (Amphibia Plethodontidae) in Tennessee, USA.'' Brimleyana, 7, 95-100.
Livingston, P. G., Spencer, C. C., and Stuart, B. L. (1995). ''Caudata: Desmognathus aeneus (Seepage Salamander).'' Herpetological Review, 26(4), 207.
Marks, S. A. and Collazo, A. (1988). ''Post-neurula development in a plethodontid salamander Desmognathus aeneus.'' American Zoologist, 28(4), 12A.
Marks, S. B. (1994). ''Development of the hyobranchial apparatus in Desmognathus aeneus, a direct developing salamander.'' Journal of Morphology, 220(3), 371.
Marks, S. B., Shubin, N., and Wake, D. (1992). ''Limb development in the plethodontid salamander genus Desmognathus: Separating hypotheses of ancestry, function, and life history.'' American Zoologist, 32(5), 147A.
Marks, S. and Collazo, A. (1998). ''Direct development in Desmognathus aeneus (Caudata: Plethodontidae): a staging table.'' Copeia, 1988(3), 637-648.
Petranka, J. W. (1998). Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. and London.
Promislow, D. E. L. (1987). ''Courtship behavior of a plethodontid salamander Desmognathus aeneus.'' Journal of Herpetology, 21(4), 298-306.
Redmond, W. H., and Scott, A. F. (1996). Atlas of Amphibians in Tennessee. Miscellaneous Publication 12, The Center for Field Biology, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee.
Titus, T. A. and Larson, A. (1996). ''Molecular phylogenetics of desmognathine salamanders (Caudata: Plethodontidae): a reevaluation of evolution in ecology, life history, and morphology.'' Systematic Biology, 45(4), 451-472.
Verrell, P. A., and Mabry, M. (2000). ''The courtship of plethodontid salamanders: form, function and phylogeny.'' The Biology of Plethodontid Salamanders. R. C. Bruce, R. G. Jaeger, and L. D. Houck, eds., Kluwer Academic/ Plenum Press, New York, NY.
Wake, D. B., Hanken, J. (1996). "Direct development in the lungless salamanders: what are the consequences for developmental biology, evolution, and phylogenesis?" International Journal of Developmental Biology, 40, 859-869. [link]
Wake, D. B., Roth, G. and Nishikawa, K. C. (1987). ''The fate of the lateral line system in plethodontid salamanders.'' American Zoologist, 27(4), 166A.
Wake, D.B. (1966). ''Comparative osteology and evolution of the lungless salamanders, family Plethodontidae.'' Memoirs of the Southern California Academy of Sciences , 4, 1-111.
Originally submitted by: Ryan Kerney (first posted 2003-01-11)
Edited by: Meredith J. Mahoney, David B. Wake, James Hanken, Michelle S. Koo (2021-08-29)
Species Account Citation: AmphibiaWeb 2021 Desmognathus aeneus: Seepage Salamander <https://amphibiaweb.org/species/3917> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed Sep 24, 2023.
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Citation: AmphibiaWeb. 2023. <https://amphibiaweb.org> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 24 Sep 2023.
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