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Red Hills Salamander

Red Hills Salamander

Phaeognathus hubrichti

Status Threatened
Listed December 3, 1976
Family Plethodontidae (Lungless Salamander)
Description Large dark brown to dark gray body with stubby limbs and a prehensile tail.
Habitat Ravine slopes in mature hardwood forests.
Food Insects.
Reproduction Four to nine eggs.
Threats Restricted habitat; intensive logging.
Range Alabama

Description

Regarded as a relict from cooler, moister prehistoric times, the Red Hills salamander, Phaeognathus hubrichti, is considered large, attaining a maximum total length of 9 in (22.5 cm). The elongated body has 20-22 costal grooves, with 12 or more intercostal folds between adpressed limbs (front limbs bent backward, hindlimbs forward). The limbs are noticeably short. Adults lack gills. The color of the body and prehensile tail is uniform dark brown to dark gray, although irregular fading in preserved animals may produce a bi-colored effect.

Behavior

This highly specialized salamander is extremely sensitive to any alteration of its habitat. It rarely leaves its burrow (in hillsides where soils are suitable), and preys upon ground-dwelling arthropods located within burrows or outside burrows near the burrow entrance.

Based on observations of captive individuals, clutch size is probably four to nine eggs, which are deposited in cavities inside burrows. The overall reproductive rate of the species is low.

Habitat

Prime habitat for the Red Hills salamander is on moderately steep, forested ravines and bluffs with a northern exposure. Natural vegetation of these moist, steep, sheltered slopes and ravines consists of a beech-magnolia forest community. Characteristic woody species in the forest overstory include American beech (Fagus grandifolia ), bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla ), southern magnolia (M. grandiflora ), white oak (Quercus alba ), and tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera ).

The habitat is characterized by mature hard-woods in a loamy, friable topsoil. A layer of silt-stone underlies many population sites, and salamander burrows almost invariably extend into cavities scooped out of this soft rock. Siltstone efficiently retains moisture, which is necessary for the salamander's survival. Individuals have been found nesting near groundwater seepages.

Distribution

This species is endemic to the Red Hills region of the Gulf coastal plain of southern Alabama.

Threats

The most important limiting factors for this species are its specific habitat requirements and its low rate of reproduction. In optimal habitat, the salamander is found in uniform densities, suggesting that such factors as predation, food supply, insecticide contamination, or competition are not important threats.

Logging operations in the region have been detrimental to the species. A large tract of habitat nearly 3,700 acres (1,500 hectares) was clear-cut and mechanically bedded in 1976. Much of the tract was then planted with pine, creating conditions that do not support the salamander. It is estimated that another 3,090 acres (1,250 hectares) have been rendered marginally habitable by intensive select-cutting. On the other hand, long-rotation, limited select-cutting does not appear to harm the salamander.

Paper companies own up to 44% of the remaining habitat and are currently using a variety of timber management techniques. The International Paper Company, which owned about 13% of the habitat in 1983, publicly announced that it would adjust its management practices to benefit the salamander. Other paper companies have avoided intensive cutting on the steep slopes and bluffs that were likely to support the salamander.

Conservation and Recovery

The recovery of the Red Hills salamander is being promoted through a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) developed by International Paper Timber-lands Operating Company, Ltd. (International Paper) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under this plan, about 6,400 acres (2,590 hectares) that include the best salamander habitat on International Paper lands will be conserved. The recommended recovery goal is to acquire or otherwise protect a refuge of at least 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) within the current range.

The Red Hills Salamander HCP provides for long-term conservation of the salamander on International Paper lands while permitting limited take of the species during otherwise legal activities. The incidental take permit, issued for a period of 30 years, applies to International Paper lands in Conecuh and Monroe Counties of south-central Alabama, where the company owns 29,463 acres (11,924 hectares) within the Red Hills salamander's historic range. Of this acreage, only around 6,400 acres (2,590 hectares) are currently occupied by the salamander, but this represents 12% of the species' total range.

The two best habitat classifications ("optimal" and "suitable but suboptimal") apply to 4,514 acres (1,827 hectares), or about 92% of the occupied Red Hills salamander sites observed on International Paper lands. To minimize and mitigate the take of Red Hills salamanders, these high quality habitats are designated as refugia under the HCP. They are surrounded by 50-ft (15.2-m) forested buffers, which total an additional 1,900 acres (769 hectares). Limited timber practices can continue in the buffers, but at least 50% canopy cover will be retained. The buffers should reduce soil disturbance and desiccation, and protect the habitat quality of the refuge. In addition, International Paper will train employees to identify salamander habitat, establish buffers, and conduct timber activities within buffer zones in compliance with the terms of the HCP. Normal forest management practices can proceed in the marginally suitable habitat, which represents the balance (8%) of occupied range on International Paper land. Incidental take of the salamander is permitted only in the marginally suitable habitat.

The success of the Red Hills salamander HCP has led International Paper to begin development of an HCP to promote the recovery of the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus ), which is listed as Threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers. Companies, in cooperation with state and federal agencies to protect rare species and manage their habitats, are becoming an increasingly key element in the recovery process for a number of species, and the Red Hills Salamander HCP serves as a model for how such plans can work for the good of all.

Contact

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Regional Office, Division of Endangered Species
1875 Century Blvd., Suite 200
Atlanta, Georgia 30345
http://southeast.fws.gov/

References

Brandon, R. A. 1965. "Morphological Variation and Ecology of the Salamander Phaeognathus hubrichti." Copeia 1965: 67-71.

Highton, R. 1961. "A New Genus of Lungless Salamander from the Coastal Plain of Alabama." Copeia 1961: 65-68.

Jordan, J. R., Jr. 1975. "The Status of the Red Hills Salamander." Journal of Herpetology 9: 211-215.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1983. "Red Hills Salamander Recovery Plan." U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta.

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