Plethodon kentucki
Cumberland Plateau Salamander
Subgenus: Plethodon
family: Plethodontidae
subfamily: Plethodontinae

© 2017 Alexander Murray (1 of 15)
Conservation Status (definitions)
IUCN (Red List) Status Least Concern (LC)
NatureServe Status Use NatureServe Explorer to see status.
Other International Status None
National Status None
Regional Status None

Country distribution from AmphibiaWeb's database: United States


View distribution map using BerkeleyMapper.


bookcover The following account is modified from Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species, edited by Michael Lannoo (©2005 by the Regents of the University of California), used with permission of University of California Press. The book is available from UC Press.

Plethodon kentucki Mittleman, 1951
Cumberland Plateau Salamander

Thomas K. Pauley1
Mark B. Watson2

1. Historical versus Current Distribution. Mittleman (1951) first described Cumberland Plateau salamanders (Plethodon kentucki) from specimens collected in Harlan and Pike counties, Kentucky. Highton and MacGregor (1983) showed that their range extends from eastern Kentucky east to Summers County, West Virginia, and Dickenson County, Virginia. Their range is now known to be in the Cumberland Plateau of eastern Kentucky, northeastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, and West Virginia west of the New and Kanawha rivers (Highton, 1986e; Highton and Peabody, 2000). The most southern point known is in Scott County, Tennessee (Redmond and Scott, 1996), and the easternmost locality is in Washington County, Virginia (Mitchell and Reay, 1999).

Prior to Mittleman’s description, Cumberland Plateau salamanders were considered by biologists to be slimy salamanders (then P. glutinosus). Clay et al. (1955) could not distinguish P. kentucki from P. glutinosus using morphological features, and thus considered P. kentucki to be a local population variant of P. glutinosus. Highton and MacGregor (1983) resurrected P. kentucki as a separate species based on electrophoretic analyses. Other evidence that has verified P. kentucki as a valid species includes immunological studies by Maha et al. (1983) and behavioral evidence by Dawley (1986). Individuals observed in the known range of Cumberland Plateau salamanders prior to 1951, and between the time of the work by Clay et al. (1955) and Highton and MacGregor (1983), were recorded as a junior synonym of P. glutinosus (Highton, 1962a; Gorham, 1974).

2. Historical versus Current Abundance. In western West Virginia, Bailey and Pauley (1993) reported that Cumberland Plateau salamanders comprised 70% of all salamander species active on the forest floor in March and April. They found few adults on the surface in February prior to the spring emergence in March–April and few in May–June after soil moisture decreased. Surface density was significantly correlated with soil moisture but not with soil temperature, air temperature, or soil pH. They also noted that Cumberland Plateau salamanders reached their greatest surface abundance between 2100 and 2200 h DST and that salamanders were most numerous on west-facing slopes, compared with southwest- and northwest-facing slopes. Cumberland Plateau salamanders are found in diverse habitats from floodplains to ridgetops in the Bluestone River Gorge (Bluestone National Scenic River) in southern West Virginia (Waldron et al., 2000). In the Bluestone River Gorge, the highest surface activity of Cumberland Plateau salamanders is from March–October. On Black Mountain, in eastern Kentucky, the greatest surface activity is from April–August. Differences in surface activity in western West Virginia reported by Bailey and Pauley (1993), Marvin (1990), and Waldron et al. (2000) may be attributed to elevational differences. The elevation in western West Virginia ranges from 197–247 m compared to 427–671 m in the Bluestone River Gorge and 1,265 m on Black Mountain.

In eastern Kentucky, Marvin (1996) estimated densities of 2–3 yr olds, and found adults (both sexes) to be < 0.20 animals/m2. In Virginia, Roble and Hobson (1995) reported observing 30–35 Cumberland Plateau salamanders and a few northern slimy salamanders (the current P. glutinosus) on 13 September in Scott County. Two visits to the same area in 1993 (date not provided) revealed no Cumberland Plateau salamanders.

3. Life History Features.

A. Breeding. Reproduction is terrestrial.

i. Breeding migrations. This species does not migrate.

ii. Breeding habitat. Reproductive behavioral studies in the laboratory revealed courtship events similar to what has been shown in other large Plethodon (i.e., rubbing and twisting of both partners followed by a tail-straddle walk, spermatophore deposition, and retrieval of the spermatophore by females; Marvin and Hutchison, 1996). Mating most likely occurs from late July or early August to October (Marvin, 1996), although a pair was observed in courtship on the forest floor at the base of a rock outcrop in the Bluestone River Gorge, West Virginia, on 14 May 1998 (W.J. Humphries and T.K. Pauley, personal observation).

B. Eggs.

i. Egg deposition sites. Eggs are deposited in grape-like clusters in underground cavities (Marvin, 1996).

ii. Clutch size. In females studied in the laboratory, clutch sizes ranged from 9–12 eggs, and eggs hatched from 5–23 October (Marvin, 1996).

C. Direct Development. Mittleman (1951) concluded that oviposition probably occurs in early September, based on the large size of follicles found in females collected in August. Marvin (1996) found that females oviposit biennially and males probably mate annually. In Kentucky, eggs are deposited in July and hatch in October (Marvin, 1996). Marvin also found that upon oviposition, females lose an average of 37% (range from 24–50%) of their wet mass.

D. Juvenile Habitat. Juveniles have been found in the same habitat as adults (J.E. Bailey, 1992; Marvin, 1996).

E. Adult Habitat. Cumberland Plateau salamanders occupy a variety of woodland habitats such as moist ravines and hillsides, shale banks, cave entrances, and rock crevices (Green and Pauley, 1987; J.E. Bailey, 1992, Pauley, 1993b; Petranka, 1998). In West Virginia, they use rocks as primary cover objects and are found more frequently on west-facing slopes (Bailey and Pauley, 1993). Pauley (1993b) examined habitats of 51 Cumberland Plateau salamanders in the New River Gorge in West Virginia in 1991 and 1992 and found 30 under cover objects on the forest floor and 21 in rock crevices.

F. Home Range Size. The size of the home range is small, probably similar to that of northern slimy salamanders. One female was recorded to move 1.8 m, and one juvenile moved 1.3 m (Bailey and Pauley, 1993).

G. Territories. Bailey (J.E., 1992) examined interactions between Cumberland Plateau salamanders and northern slimy salamanders in a laboratory experiment. He found no significant differences in frequency of occurrences for the initiator (first salamander to move from its original position), aggressor (salamander that threatens or attacks first), escaper (salamander that attempts to flee), and biter (salamander that grasped or snapped at another). Cumberland Plateau salamanders were appeasers (positioned themselves to avoid or hinder an attack) and intruders (one that entered the territory of another) significantly more often than northern slimy salamanders. Northern slimy salamanders were defenders (one whose territory was invaded) significantly more often than were Cumberland Plateau salamanders. In interactions with northern slimy salamanders, Cumberland Plateau salamanders show an increase in territorial behavior in accordance with shelter availability and population density (Marvin, 1998).

H. Aestivation/Avoiding Dessication. Apparently, there is little surface activity in lower elevations after April when temperatures rise and soil moisture decreases (Bailey and Pauley, 1993). Populations on Black Mountain, Kentucky, move underground during summer droughts, and juveniles in this area probably grow slower and suffer higher mortality during summers with reduced rainfall (Marvin, 1996). During summers with sufficient rainfall, they remain active on the surface throughout the summer (Marvin, 1990).

I. Seasonal Migrations. This species does not migrate.

J. Torpor (Hibernation). A few adults have been observed on the surface in February (Bailey and Pauley, 1993). As with other Plethodon, some adults will emerge to the surface during warm periods in winter.

K. Interspecific Associations/Exclusions. Cumberland Plateau salamanders (Plethodon kentucki) and northern slimy salamanders are sympatric throughout most of the range of Cumberland Plateau salamanders (Highton and Peabody, 2000). For a detailed description of the geographic protein variation of Cumberland Plateau salamanders and northern slimy salamanders, see Highton and Peabody (2000).

Competitive interactions for space, nesting sites, and food probably occur between green salamanders (Aneides aeneus) and northern slimy salamanders (J.E. Bailey, 1992; Marvin, 1998).

L. Age/Size at Reproductive Maturity. Mittleman (1951) suggested females reach sexual maturity at about 46 mm SVL; males at 40 mm. Marvin (1996) estimated that females become sexually mature in 4–5 yr when they exceed 52 mm SVL and males in 3–4 yr at about 47–48 mm.

M. Longevity. Probably similar to northern slimy salamanders, which have been reported to live over 20 yr (Snider and Bowler, 1992). Based on recapture data, Marvin (1996) estimates that annual survivorship of 2 yr olds is at least 48% and 68% in 3 yr olds. Annual survivorship of adults ranges from 72–92%.

N. Feeding Behavior. Major prey items include hymenopterans, collembolans, coleopterans, spiders, snails, pseudoscorpions, dipterans, and mites (J.E. Bailey, 1992).

P. Anti-Predator Mechanisms. Not reported, but as with slimy salamanders, Cumberland Plateau salamanders undoubtedly can secrete copious amounts of mucous when attacked.

Q. Diseases. Not reported.

R. Parasites. Not reported.

4. Conservation. Optimal habitats for Cumberland Plateau salamanders are found in mature hardwood forests (Petranka, 1998). Harvesting of hardwoods and aggressive rotation schedules will have a negative impact on woodland salamanders, including Cumberland Plateau salamanders (but see Ash, 1988, 1997, and Ash and Bruce, 1994).

1Thomas K. Pauley
Department of Biological Sciences
Marshall University
Huntington, West Virginia 25701

Allegheny Institute of Natural History
University of Pittsburgh at Bradford
Bradford, Pennsylvania 16701

2Mark B. Watson
Allegheny Institute of Natural History
University of Pittsburgh at Bradford
Bradford, Pennsylvania 16701

Literature references for Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species, edited by Michael Lannoo, are here.

Feedback or comments about this page.


Citation: AmphibiaWeb. 2018. <> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 22 Mar 2018.

AmphibiaWeb's policy on data use.