Week 10, Day 2: Jemez Mountains Salamander

The Jemez Mountains salamander only lives in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. It has been found in parts of Los Alamos, Sandoval, and Rio Arriba counties. (Photo by Mark Watson)

Welcome to Take It Outside! This week, we are getting to know our local reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herptiles — or herps!

We have our very own endemic species of salamander in the Jemez Mountains: the Jemez Mountains salamander. This species is found nowhere else in the world! Learn about this elusive and endangered creature in today’s post.

Blog Post:

Los Alamos National Laboratory wildlife biologist Chuck Hathcock gives us a look into the life of the Jemez Mountains salamander, and discusses some of the threats facing this small amphibian. Read his blog post here.


The Jemez Mountains salamander is a lungless salamander that breathes through its very thin, permeable skin. It’s crucial for this salamander to maintain moist skin, clear of chemicals and pollutants. Try this experiment demonstrating how pollutants can enter the skin of an amphibian. It uses hard-boiled eggs to model amphibians’ permeable skin.

Think about how environmental conditions can impact the survival of this endangered species.


Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Terrestrial amphibians like the Jemez Mountains salamander require moist soil to survive. Moist soil isn’t easy to come by here on the Pajarito Plateau! Go outside and see if you can find moist soil. Is it easier to find at the tops of hills or mesas, or at the bottoms of canyons and dips? Do you have to dig? How far down can you find moisture? Can you find it at all?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Titus is one of the two tiger salamanders that live at the Los Alamos Nature Center. Like Jemez Mountains salamanders, their skin needs to stay moist at all times. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

The Jemez Mountains Salamander is very rare and endangered, but there is another native salamander that is quite common in our area: the tiger salamander. Tiger salamanders have both aquatic and terrestrial life stages, and can be found in and around wetlands and small ponds throughout Northern New Mexico. The Los Alamos Reservoir is an example of a place where you can reliably see tiger salamanders during the aquatic part of their life cycle.

See if you can spot a tiger salamander! Send us a picture if you find one!


Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our local reptiles and amphibians this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore some of our local lizards!

Our Local Salamander

The Jemez Mountains salamander is endemic to the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. This creature is listed as an endangered species. (Photo by Chuck Hathcock)

By Chuck Hathcock, Wildlife Biologist at LANL

The Jemez Mountains are home to one of the nation’s most unique salamanders. Only here, and nowhere else in the world, exists the Jemez Mountains salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus). This endemic species is very secretive and not many people have ever seen one. They are thin, about as wide as a pencil, and only large adults are as long as a pencil. They are dark brown above, sometimes with a fine gold stippling of color.

Tam and Titus are the tiger salamanders at the Los Alamos Nature Center. These salamanders are much more common than the Jemez Mountains salamander. (Photo by Ashleigh Lusher)

The only other salamander that lives in the area is the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) which is very common. They are large and black with distinct yellow stripes or spots. Their aquatic form can be often seen at the Los Alamos Reservoir overflow.

Jemez Mountains salamanders are lungless salamanders, so they “breathe” from gas exchange through their inner mouth linings and their skin. The skin and mouth linings must be moist for gas exchange to occur, so they need a moist environment that does not dry out. That really limits where they can live. They cannot survive in White Rock Canyon, for example.

You may be thinking that the Rio Grande is suitable, but another unusual trait about these salamanders is that they are terrestrial their whole lives, from hatching to adult. They do not have an aquatic larval phase like most other amphibians and when placed in water, the Jemez Mountains salamander will not survive. Because of these limitations, they are only found in certain parts of the Jemez Mountains, usually between 2,200 and 2,900 meters (about 7,200 – 9,500 feet) in elevation. There are known populations within Los Alamos County, even within the Laboratory and townsite boundaries. These lower elevation populations live in small habitat niches that are still moist.

Jemez Mountains salamanders spend the majority of their lives underground. They cannot dig on their own, so they move through the underground world following existing interstitial spaces between fractured rocks or spaces along roots. During the wet and warm monsoon season, they come to the surface and live in rotten logs or under rocks where they can maintain their moist skin. It’s no wonder why they are so hard to find! There are a lot of unknowns about this salamander and the scientific community has many knowledge gaps to fill. How deep underground do they live? What does a nest look like? What drives their underground habitat needs? These and many other questions need to be answered.

All of the things that make the Jemez Mountains salamander so unique and interesting, also make it vulnerable to many threats. One of their biggest threats is stand-replacing wildfires. When a forest is removed by a large wildfire, the ground becomes desiccated. The increased erosion after a wildfire fills all of the spaces in the earth with sediment. Jemez Mountains salamanders in these areas will die off and cannot be replaced.

Because of the many large wildfires in the Jemez Mountains over the last twenty years, the salamander was listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act in 2013. This salamander is at high risk of going extinct and researchers and land managers are doing what they can to avoid their extinction.

If you ever are lucky enough to see a Jemez Mountains salamander, please don’t touch it, but do take a photo and send the photo and location to someone at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. The data can be passed along to the land managers and federal regulators to help conserve this most unique species that is found nowhere else in the world.

Tiger Salamanders and Mammals: Underground Companions?

Expanded version of the article printed in Nature Notes No. 4, 2017

By Dr. Ellen A.G. Chernoff and Jennifer Macke

Tiger salamanders are common on the Pajarito Plateau and throughout northern New Mexico. Because they live underground, we rarely see them. The underground parts of our world are one of our “final frontiers”; we know very little about what goes on down there! Read more Tiger Salamanders and Mammals: Underground Companions?

Salamander in Garden Pond

A local resident in the Camino Encantado neighborhood of Barranca Mesa recently had a surprise when she was cleaning out her garden pond. She saw something in the water that she couldn’t identify, “about a foot long”, she said! PEEC helped her to identify it as a tiger salamander. It was a male, in breeding condition.

Though common, tiger salamanders are rarely seen, as they usually stay underground. In spring, they seek any body of water they can find in order to reproduce. It wasn’t clear whether this fellow had spent the winter in the pond, or had just arrived this spring in search of a mate.

You never know what surprises you might find right in your own back yard!