AmphibiaWeb - Desmognathus welteri


(Translations may not be accurate.)

Desmognathus welteri Barbour, 1950
Black Mountain Dusky Salamander, Black Mountain Salamander
family: Plethodontidae
subfamily: Plethodontinae
genus: Desmognathus
Desmognathus welteri
© 2017 Jake Hutton (1 of 21)
Conservation Status (definitions)
IUCN Red List Status Account Least Concern (LC)
NatureServe Use NatureServe Explorer to see status.
National Status None
Regional Status None
conservation needs Access Conservation Needs Assessment Report .


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Among salamanders in the genus Desmognathus, the Black Mountain salamander (D. welteri) is one of the largest. Adults reach total lengths of 170 mm and snout-vent length between 50 and 95 mm SVL. Costal groove number is normally 14 (Petranka 1998). This species fits the description of the large-bodied aquatic form of Bruce (1991) with morphological adaptations to a semi-aquatic existence, including keratinized toe tips and a highly keeled tail. This keel is normally separated from the musculature of the tail. Larvae range in size from SVL 11-12.5 mm at hatching to 21-28 mm before metamorphosis and have the same dark toe tips as adults.

The background color of the dorsum is described as light to dark brownish overlain with variable amounts of random dark brown to black vermiculations, small spots, and streaks (Juterbock 1984). Some individuals lack almost all such markings and are a uniform sandy color. It has been suggested that geographical variation exists in color pattern in this species (Juterbock 1984). Many individuals exhibit two lines of light spots running along their sides, one at eye level extending back onto the tail and the other between the front and hind limbs. Recent metamorphs are olive-brown colored with a uniform drab dorsum with little or no spotting. Larvae of D. welteri are a similar brownish color to adults and juveniles, but their dorsum show two rows of light spots characteristic of other congeners. They are stout with a large tail fin, darkened toe tips, and 19-22 gill fimbrea per side (Juterbock 1984; McCleary 1989).

Male D. welteri are larger than females, have a small mental gland at the apex of the jaws, and papillose cloacal lips (Juterbock 1978). This species is best separated from the similar D. fuscus by its dark toe tips, large-keeled tail, and the lack of separation of dorsal and ventral coloration (Caldwell and Trauth 1979; Juterbock 1984). Desmognathus monticola can be differentiated from D. welteri by its darker colored dorsum with a roughly spotted pattern, and its venter, which is lightly pigmented with no mottling (Juterbock 1984; Petranka 1998).

Distribution and Habitat

Country distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: United States

U.S. state distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia

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The current range of the Black Mountain salamander is in the Cumberland Mountains and Plateau in Kentucky and in neighboring portions of western Virginia and northern Tennessee (Juterbock 1984; Redmond and Scott 1996; Mitchell and Reay 1999). This species has also been reported from southwestern West Virginia (McCleary and Orr 1987; Felix 2001). Its habitat includes small- to medium-size, usually permanent, streams in forested areas ranging in elevation between 1000 to 2640 feet (305-805 meters) with relatively high gradient (Redmond 1980; Juterbock and Felix 2005).

Life History, Abundance, Activity, and Special Behaviors
The courtship of Black Mountain salamanders has recently been described by Verrell and Mabry (2003) and placed in an evolutionary context within the Desmognathinae. Male D. welteri use multiple chemical, visual, and tactile cues to stimulate females and then a variety of behaviors to further persuade her to mate with him. Sperm transfer is accomplished through a tail straddle walk. Breeding takes place in the spring of the year (Felix 2001). Females likely deposit eggs in early June and hatchlings can be found in September. Nests are placed in leaf packs above the stream channel, in stream banks, or under rocks in the stream channel (Smith et al. 1996; Juterbock and Felix 2005). Like other aquatic members of the genus (D. quadramaculatus and D. brimleyorum) the larval period of D. welteri is more than one year (20-24 months).

Black Mountain salamanders can reach high densities in optimal habitat, and are the most common species in some streams (Barbour 1971). They coexist with up to three members of their genus. In these situations a gradient is observed from the large aquatic species, D. welteri, to smaller and more terrestrial species respectively including the seal salamander (D. monticola), northern dusky salamander (D. fuscus) and the mountain dusky salamander (D. ochrophaeus) (Juterbock and Felix 2005).

Trends and Threats
The Black Mountain salamander has received a Least Concern ranking from the IUCN. Globally they are ranked GS4, and received state ranks of S3 and S1 in Tennessee and West Virginia respectively. The largest threat to this unique species is likely habitat degradation and loss, especially associated with surface mining activities. The entirety of the species range is encompassed by the Cumberland Mountains and Plateau physiographic region. The majority of this region contains moderate sulfur content coal and is mined extensively (Gore 1983). In this same area, larvae of the northern dusky salamander (D. fuscus) were limited in distribution by water quality changes associated with coal surface mines (Gore 1983). The controversial practice of mountain top removal, which possibly results in local extirpation of the species, is used in the same areas.

Relation to Humans
Many fishermen that live within the range of D. welteri know the animals, locally called “spring lizards”, as fishing bait. Redmond (1980) commented on this practice and its potential effects on populations and the distribution of the species.

Possible reasons for amphibian decline

General habitat alteration and loss
Habitat modification from deforestation, or logging related activities
Intensified agriculture or grazing
Local pesticides, fertilizers, and pollutants

This interesting species has remained relatively unknown compared to the rest of the genus Desmognathus, likely for reasons of geography. Its range lies west of the areas best studied by early salamander biologists. The first time it was recognized as a full species was by Barbour (1971). Until this point, the literature on the genus Desmognathus throughout the range of D. welteri was very confusing (see review by Juterbock 1975). Desmognathus welteri was traditionally confused with either D. fuscus or D. monticola, likely because of the somewhat subtle nature of the morphological differences between the three species. For these reasons, most aspects of the biology of this species remain little-studied.


Barbour, R. W. (1971). Amphibians and Reptiles of Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington.

Bruce, R.C. (1991). ''Evolution of ecological diversification in Desmognathine salamanders.'' Herpetological-Review, 22(2), 44-45.

Caldwell, R.S., and Trauth, S.E. (1979). ''Use of toe pad and tooth morphology in differentiating three species of Desmognathus (Amphibia, Urodela, Plethodontidae).'' Journal of Herpetology, 13, 491-497.

Felix, Z.I. (2001). ''A Natural History Study of Desmognathus welteri in West Virginia.'' Unpublished Masters Thesis, Huntington, West Virginia

Gore, J.A. (1983). ''The distribution of Desmognathine larvae (Amphibia: Plethodontidae) in coal surface impacted streams of the Cumberland Plateau, USA.'' Journal of Freshwater Ecology, 2, 13-23.

Juterbock, J. E., and Z. I. Felix. 2005. Black Mountain salamander. Desmognathus welteri. Barbour, 1950. Pp. 1794-1799. In: M.J. Lannoo (ed.), Status and Conservation of U.S. Amphibians. Vol. 2: Species Accounts. Univ. California Press, Berkeley (In Press)

Juterbock, J.E. (1975). ''The Status of Desmognathus welteri Barbour (Caudata:Plethodontidae) and a Comparison with Two Sympatric Congeners.'' Unpublished Master's Thesis, Ohio State University

Juterbock, J.E. (1978). ''Sexual dimorphism and maturity characteristics of three species of Desmognathus (Amphibia, Urodela, Plethodontidae).'' Journal of Herpetology, 12, 217-230.

Juterbock, J.E. (1984). ''Evidence for the recognition of specific status for Desmognathus welteri.'' Journal of Herpetology, 18(3), 240-255.

McCleary, E.C. (1989). ''Taxonomic Status of a Desmognathine Salamander in West Virginia.'' Unpublished Master's Thesis, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

McCleary, E.C. and Orr, L.P. (1987). ''A new salamander for West Virginia: Desmognathus welteri.'' Ohio Journal of Science, 87(2), 49.

Mitchell, J. C., and K. K. Reay. 1999. Atlas of Amphibians and Reptiles in Virginia. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Richmond, Virginia, Special Publication 1, 121 pp.

Petranka, J. W. (1998). Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. and London.

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.

Redmond, W.H. (1980). ''Notes on the distribution and ecology of the Black Mountain dusky salamander Desmognathus welteri Barbour (Amphibia:Plethodontidae) in Tennessee.'' Brimleyana, 4, 123-131.

Smith, C.K., Petranka, J.W., and Barwick, R.L. (1996). ''Desmognathus welteri (Black Mountain dusky salamander) reproduction.'' Herpetological-Review, 27, 136.

Verrell, P., and Mabry, M. (2003). ''Sexual behaviour of the Black Mountain dusky salamander and the evolutionary history of courtship in the Desmognathinae.'' Journal of Zoology, 260(4), 367-376.

Originally submitted by: Zach Felix (first posted 2005-01-31)
Edited by: JG, Tate Tunstall (2008-02-03)

Species Account Citation: AmphibiaWeb 2008 Desmognathus welteri: Black Mountain Dusky Salamander <> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed Jun 15, 2024.

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Citation: AmphibiaWeb. 2024. <> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 15 Jun 2024.

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