The Cave Salamander is a slender, delicate amphibian that makes its home in the “twilight zone” of sandstone and limestone caves or deep ravines. The twilight zone is the area in the cave mouth where there is some light, but not enough for plants to grow. They can also inhabit the areas immediately surrounding the cave mouth, often living under rocks and logs like many other plethodonids. Indeed, Cave Salamanders have been discovered over 1 km from the nearest cave or ravine; however, the cave is still the center of their life cycle and original home.
Cave Salamanders are typically yellowish-orange, orange, or bright orange-red. They have a yellow or white belly, and their dorsal and lateral sides are sprinkled with irregular, dark spots. They can grow to 20 cm. They have blunt snouts, and long, narrow tails that, in adults, are often 60-65% of their body length. They appear somewhat flattened. The young salamanders tend to be a lighter color and have a shorter tail.
Although, as mentioned above, cave salamanders can be found some distance from a cave, the cave is still the center of their life cycle. Breeding probably occurs in the caves in the anytime from June to November. This extended breeding season allows the females to have two clutches. Females affix 50-90 eggs (in each clutch) individually to the underside of rocks in deep recesses of underground springs and streams within the cave. Very few such eggs have ever been found due to the inaccessibility of the sites. Probably in the late winter, the eggs hatch into larvae approximately 17.5 mm in length, or about the length of a dime. These larvae make their homes in the deep springs and streams where they hatched. The larvae are fairly uniform in color, with three rows of spots on their backs and sides, and a broad tail fin. The larvae leave their natal pools between December and May, and metamorphose the following summer, 12-18 months after hatching. Although their lifespan is unknown, they do not reach sexual maturity for 2-3 years after metamorphosing.
These salamanders are well fitted for life in caves. They have long legs and toes, as well as a prehensile tail that enable them to climb rocks, cave walls, and even the sides of this glass tank with ease. Both the larvae and the adults prey on small invertebrates. Their hunting technique is a swift lunge, aided by a tongue that can extend in 5.5 milliseconds.
This juvenile specimen was captured by the Herpetology class in Tawney’s cave, at the bottom of the mountain. The population in that cave has been studied previously.
Article by Hazel Galloway