--by Whit Gibbons
Webster's salamander provides the true thrill of finding a sought after animal that is rare and difficult to find. Six of us spent a December day in search of these animals, spending a total of four hours turning over rocks, logs, and other ground cover, the equivalent of one person-day of looking. Sure enough we found 12 Webster's salamanders, along with a few other types of salamanders, a lizard, and a ringneck snake. We were elated with our captures, but in terms of success at finding our true quarry, Webster's salamander, we averaged one for every two hours of searching.
Webster's salamander may hold the record among North American amphibians for being found in the fewest places for an animal that has a geographic range that includes five states. The most eastern populations in South Carolina are almost 600 miles from the most western populations in Louisiana. Nonetheless, Webster's salamanders are found in only one small region of western South Carolina, three small areas in Mississippi, and one in eastern Louisiana. The most extensive area where these small salamanders live is in west central Georgia and east central Alabama.
Webster's salamanders are restricted to rocky hillsides in forests where they hide beneath rocks, logs, and leaves. A big one is a little over three inches long. Surprisingly, compared to many reptiles and amphibians, the best time to find a Webster's salamander is in cold weather during fall, winter, and early spring when they are beneath objects on the surface. During the warmer months they seem to disappear, presumably going deep into rock crevices where temperatures are cooler. One of their favorite foods appears to be termites.
Studies have been conducted on the South Carolina populations of Webster's salamanders, which are restricted to only a few localities in one county (McCormick), where we went on our field trip. Although the salamanders are common beneath rocks and logs on a forested hillside near a stream, none have been found in other forested areas only a few miles away. In fact, during a search for them only a quarter-mile away along the same stream, we have been unable to find any.
The limited localities where these little creatures are found is an aid in identifying them, as several other species of salamanders look similar but live in other regions. Some individuals are a solid dark grayish or brown whereas some have a reddish or yellowish stripe down the back and onto the tail.
Animals like Webster's salamanders are an excellent example of how we must be very careful about protecting natural habitats. For example, if the few small, forested areas in which these salamanders occur were destroyed in some way, it might be the end of the species not only in the region but also in the entire state. Our rarely seen species such as the Webster's salamander provide inspiration for the protection of natural habitats, because any one might harbor a species that we could one day have an opportunity to see in the wild.