Alpine Salamander

Salmandra atra atra (LAURENTI, 1768) is completely black, 8-14cm long, weighs 8-14g, lives up to 15 years and is the most common one to be found in the Alps. In Austrian dialect, the alpine salamander is called “Wegnox, Wegnarr, Wegmandl, Hölldeixl”. Two rare subspecies with bright yellow spots namely Salmandra atra aurorae and Salmandra atra pasubiensis live in Italy.

Sexual dimorphism: The differentiation of male and female is really difficult for the unpracticed eye. Males are smaller and have a longer tail than females. Pregnant females have massy corpulence. Males are posing during the mating season with completely outstretched forelegs. The most obvious difference between male and female is found in the cloacal region. In males the cloaca cambers considerably outwards. Furthermore it shows a well apparent right angle from the underside of the tail to caudal, when looking at the cloaca from lateral. The cloaca of the females is flat on the outside. The male cloaca is very thick and swollen and forms a right angle to the underside of the tail.

Distribution: Terra typica: Loibl-Pass, Karavanke chain between Carinthia and Krain, according to description of the distribution presented by Laurenti in 1768. Today the exact distribution area of the Alpine Salamander is unclear. The areas are divided into a northern and a southern part. The northern part consists of the Alps, which seem to be totally populated. The southern part contains the southern Dinaric Alps and northern Albania.
The distribution border in Austria is as follows: from the Kolomansberg, the Höllengebirge, Traunstein, Sensengebirge, Voralm, Ötscher to the Schneeberg. The very eastern point in this area is only 50 km SW from Vienna. The eastern border is not well known, it ranges from the Wechsel, the Gleinalpe, Stubalpe, Koralpe, Petzen/Peca (border between Slovenia and Austria), Raduha, Fischalpe to the Julian Alps. The southernmost point of this connected area is the Tarnovaner in the east of Gorizia.

The Alpine salamander can be found on altitudes between 433 – 2800 m a.s.l.

Habitat: Alpine salamanders are found in beech groves, in deciduous forests and in mixed deciduous woodland in lower altitudes. Coniferous woodland is only populated in the peripheral region. The animals prefer mixed deciduous woodland with enough hiding places during the day. Above the tree line Alpine salamanders live on alp grassland and dwarf shrub heath land and also in rock surroundings. Stones, crevices, mouse holes and dead/rotten wood are used as hideouts during the day. The Alpine salamander is rarely found on extreme southern slopes, probably due to too high temperatures which result in dry ground.

Behavior: Alpine salamanders feed on everything that is not too big and not too fast for them. Most often they can be observed while eating earth-worms, followed by small slugs and different arthropods. They only have few predators because of their poisonous glands on the back: carrion crows, common raven, grasssnake, European adder, hedgehogs and slowworms sometimes prey on salamanders. Alpine newt (Triturus alpestris), Fire salamander (Salamandra Salamandra), common frog (Rana temporaria), common toad (Bufo bufo), yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata), common lizard (Lacerta vivipara), slowworm (Anguis fragilis), grass snake (Natrix natrix), Coronella austriaca and European adder (Vipera berus) can be found in habitats of Alpine salamanders. The early morning hours between 3:00 and 7:00 am is the main activity time of salamanders. Most animals can be found after long dry periods which are followed by a tepid thunderstorm. They love temperatures between 8-15°C and 90% air humidity. Alpine salamanders are active from May to October, depending on altitude and snowfall/snow melting. The maximum activity can be observed in July and August. Alpine salamanders hibernate in crevices or holes for 5-7 months, depending on snow cover. They can even survive if they freeze for a short period of time.

For more information about the special and unique reproduction mode of the Alpine salamander, click here!

Endangerment: The Alpine salamander belongs to the completely protected animals in Austria. On European level it is listed in annex IV (species of community interest in need of strict protection) of the FFH directive as well as in annex III of the Berne Convention. In the IUCN Red List, Salamandra atra atra is listed as Least Concern (LC), but the subspecies Salamandra atra aurorae is listed as Critically Endangered (CR). Because of their high elevated habitats, Alpine salamanders do not have the big problem of habitat loss due to human invasions, as Fire salamanders do. But in future, climate change, development of skiing regions (as it happens very often in Austria!), artificial snowmaking and forest clearances could become big problems for the survival of this species. Drastic changes in their environment, like the flattening of slopes for ski trails could have negative influence on the salamander populations which can only be seen after some decades, because the population turnover-rate in Alpine salamanders is very low. So the human population has to be very careful in going on changing the natural environment for tourism: what if we realize too late that we have lost our Alpine salamander, one of our national treasures?? The tourists will still be there, but nobody can bring us back the little black guy with his big eyes and his sweet waddle-walk…

What would we and the Alps be without our Salamanders!

Here’s a short movie, also check the ones about mating coming up in the youtube window.

Bibliography:

Bonato, L./Steinfartz, S. (2005): Evolution of the melanistic colour in the Alpine salamander Salamandra atra as revealed by a new subspecies from the Vene-tian Prealps. Italian Journal of Zoology 72, p. 253 – 260

Fachbach, G. (1990): Der Alpensalamander (Salamandra atra LAUR.) Biologie und Fortpflanzung. Österreichisches Bundesinstitut für den wissenschaftlichen Film

Greven, H. (1998): Survey of the Oviduct of Salamandris With Special Reference to the Viviparous Species. The Journal of Experimental Zoology 282, p. 507 – 525

Thiesmeier, B./Grossenbacher, K. (2004): Handbuch der Reptilien und Amphibien Europas. Band 4/IIB Schwanzlurche (Urodela) IIB, Salamandridae III: Triturus 2, Salamandra, Aula Verlag

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