Cheat Mountain salamanders are slim woodland amphibians with dark brown backs covered in gold-colored flecks. Their bellies are dark gray, and they have a series of vertical grooves that run along their sides. Cheat Mountain salamanders are small in size relative to other members of this salamander family. Adults grow to just four inches (10 centimeters) long from the snout to the tip of the tail. Males tend to have larger snouts than females.
These salamanders are named for their presence in West Virginia’s Cheat Mountain, part of the Allegheny Mountains—the only region where this salamander can be found. They live in red spruce and yellow birch forests, where an individual Cheat Mountain salamander rarely leaves its own 48-square-foot territory. These salamanders keep to forests with moist ground cover for a very important reason: They lack lungs and instead breathe through their skin and membranes in their mouth and throat. When the weather gets too hot and dry, the salamanders must find cover to survive. As the temperature drops in the winter, Cheat Mountain salamanders retreat underground to stay warm. Predators to these animals include short-tailed shrews, common garter snakes, and ring-necked snakes.
On humid evenings, Cheat Mountain salamanders walk the forest floor in search of food. Their diet is largely composed of insects such as mites, springtails, beetles, flies, and ants. The salamanders occasionally climb trees and stumps to search for food below.
The breeding season for Cheat Mountain salamanders runs from spring to autumn. Females carry eggs for one to two months, then lay them in cracks of decomposing logs. About 8 to 10 eggs are laid at a time, then the female sticks around to guard the eggs from predators. The offspring undergo metamorphosis from a larval stage while still inside their eggs. When they hatch in August or September, they look like miniature adults. Cheat Mountain salamanders likely reach sexual maturity after three to four years and live up to 20 years.
The Cheat Mountain salamander is federally listed as threatened. It can’t survive without trees because the forest canopy acts as a shield from the drying effects of the sun. Tree removal, even just for a small trail, fragments its habitat. The salamanders already occupy very small individual territories and don’t easily disperse to new areas. Fortunately most of the range of the Cheat Mountain salamander is located within the protected Monongahela National Forest. However the West Virginia Natural Heritage Program says the Cheat Mountain salamander is extremely vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change because it lives only at high elevation and requires a narrow temperature range. As temperatures warm, its high-elevation habitat will be seriously affected.
This salamander has a special defense to thwart its attackers—it produces a slimy, noxious chemical on its skin that causes unpleasant side effects for anything that tries to eat it.
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
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