Pygmy Salamander
Desmognathus organi

Common Name:

Pygmy Salamander

Scientific Name:

Desmognathus organi



desmos is Greek for  "ligament",  gnathos is Greek for "jaw"  - This refers to the bundle of ligaments holding the jaw.



Average Length:

1.5 - 2 in. (3.8 - 5.1 cm)

Virginia Record Length:

Record length:

Virginia Wildlife Action Plan Rating Tier III - High Conservation Need - Extinction or extirpation is possible. Populations of these species are in decline or have declined to low levels or are in a restricted range. Management action is needed to stabilize or increase populations.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: This is one of the smallest North American salamanders reaching a maximum length of 54.5 mm (2.2 inches) and a maximum SVL of 30.8 mm (1.25 inches). The tail averages approximately 40% of the total length and is round in cross-section. It has a narrowly rounded snout, which along with the eyelids, are rugose and characterize this species. The head width is maximum just behind the corner of the mouth. The hindlimbs are noticably larger and more muscular than the forelimbs. The hands and feet have short toes with no webbing between them. Fourteen costal grooves are present counting one in the axilla and two in the groin. Between the adpressed limbs there are two to four costal folds. Coloration is chestnut or coppery- colored but variable, with a lighter, wavy-edged dorsal stripe which extends from the head to the tail tip. Between the eye and the mouth there is a light stripe. The dorsal surface of the legs are usually colored like the dorsal band. Males and females are similar, but females have similar premaxillary teeth, a more rounded snout, and a shorter tail than the males. Development is completed within the egg so that there is no free-living larval stage. Hatchlings are 10.3-11.3 mm total length *9286*. Many individuals have a definite herringbone pattern along the mid-line of back. There is a light line from the eye to the angle of the jaw which is often conspicuous. The belly is light. There are 3-7 vomerine teeth present in adults of both sexes. The tail is short, 34-43% of the total length *1009*.

REPRODUCTION: Oviposition has been reported to occur in the winter spring and fall. The eggs are layed in small cavities amid the rocks of spring seeps. The eggs are guarded by the female until hatching. Hatching was observed in October *9286,10812*. The courtship sequence includes a behavior not previously reported for any Plethodontid salamander. A male may approach and grab a female, holding her tail, body, or head in clamped jaws. The male may restrain a female for up to several hours before proceeding with subsequent courtship activity. A feature of related importance is the presence in the male of relatively enlarged mandibular teeth, while adult females possess monocuspid, conical teeth. The mandibular teeth of the males are conical only at the base and terminate with a barb-shaped enlargement. The male tooth shape may be important during courtship both in restraining a female and facilitating the males delivery of mental gland secretion *923*. Courtship occurs in April and May, with a fall season also likely *10812*. The eggs are laid in clusters in pockets of gravel and mud through which water percolates. Each cluster is suspended from the side or the bottom of small rocks with the bulk of the masses projecting into small cavities in the mud surrounding the rocks. The cluster size is from 3-8 eggs suspended by a single attachment stalk *954*. The eggs are attached to small rocks in mud cavities in seeps, found to a depth of 12 inches in the summer *10812*.

BEHAVIOR: This species is often encountered in spruce-fir forests of higher elevations *876*. It is usually found at an elevation above 5000 feet, but occasionally as low as 3500 feet *1009*. The most terrestrial species of its genus, lives in moss and leaf litter of the forest floor, and enters springs and seepage for egg-laying in the summer or early autumn and aggregates in these sites in the winter months *954,953*. This species avoids saturated soil in preference for higher and drier mountain habitats *912*. This species is nocturnal and tends to feed in the hours after midnight when the atmosphere is saturated. It does a significant amount of foraging in trees *938*. On foggy, rainy nights it may be found up to 7 feet above ground level on tree trunks *2077*. It is carnivorous, eating tiny terrestrial invertebrates *938*.

POPULATION PARAMETERS: Scientific collections in the past have been a major source of predation in Virginia *938*. Survivorship is high with some males reaching a potential of greater than 10 years of age *9286*. This is only one of two salamanders that lack a larval feeding phase. The gills resorb shortly before hatching.*11305*

References for Life History

  • 876 - Bruce, R.C., 1977, The pygmy salamander Desmognathus wrighti (Amphibia, Urodela, Plethodontidae), in the Cowee Mountains, NC, J. Herpetol., Vol. 11, pg. 246-247
  • 912 - Hairston, N.G., 1949, The local distribution and ecology of the Plethodontid salamanders of the southern Appalachians, Ecol. Monogr., Vol. 19, pg. 47-73
  • 923 - Houck, L.D., 1980, Courtship behavior in the Plethodontid salamanders Desmognathus wrighti, Am. Zool., Vol. 20, pg. 825
  • 938 - Krakauer, T., Linzey, D.W. (Ed.), 1979, Pigmy salamander, Proc. Symp. on Endangered and Threatened Plants and Animals of Virginia, pg. 381, 665 pgs., Ext. Div., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ., Blacksburg
  • 953 - Organ, J.A., 1961, Studies of the local distribution, life history, and population dynamics of the salamander genus Desmognathus in Virginia, Ecol. Monogr., Vol. 31, pg. 189-220
  • 954 - Organ, J.A., 1961, Life history of the pigmy salamander, Desmognathus wrighti, in Virginia, Am. Midl. Nat., Vol. 66, pg. 384-390
  • 970 - Shealy, R.M., 1975, Factors influencing activity in the salamanders Desmognatus ochrophaeus and D. monticola (Plethodontidae), Herpetology, Vol. 31, pg. 94-102
  • 1009 - Bishop, S.C., 1943, Handbook of Salamanders, 555 pgs., Comstock Publ. Co., New York, NY
  • 2077 - Russ, W.P., 1973, The rare and endangered terrestrial vertebrates of Virginia, Ph.D. dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ., Blacksburg, 339 pgs.
  • 9286 - Terwilliger, K.T., 1991, Virginia's endangered species: Proceedings of a symposium. Coordinated by the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, Nongame and Endangered Species Program, 672 pp. pgs., McDonald and Woodward Publ. Comp., Blacksburg, VA
  • 10812 - Organ, J.A., 1990, Salamander Survey Section One 1990, Prepared for the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, 40 pgs., Dept. of Bio. of the City College of New York, New York


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