Species of the Month: Pacific Giant Salamander

Posted on Monday, Jan 5th, 2015
Pacific Giant Salamander

Trip: Rogue River Rafting

Habitat: Cold creeks & surrounding forest floor

Likelihood of encountering this species: Rare to moderately rare

In early September my fellow guides and I led a small group of guests up Tate Creek on the Rogue River. After traversing the jungle-gym like rocks we arrived at the famous natural water slide. The run-out pool reflects the sunlight against the smooth charcoal-colored rock walls, and beneath swim dozens of Rough Skinned Newts. Our guests delight in the quantity and oddity of these newts, picking them up and turning them into vacation photo celebrities.  

“What’s that one?” a guest asks, pointing to another four-legged creature at the bottom of the pool. “It’s grey!” Sure enough, this critter is different. It is the same size as the newts, but the head is much larger with a thick, alligator-like neck. It has ruffles at its neck, toes on its feet and a fin-like ridge down the top of its tail. 


The guest had found a Pacific Giant Salamander!


In the animal world, Salamanders are among the few who have the ability to morph. Over a lifetime, a salamander’s forms can take them from egg to water to land. 


This particular Salamander in Tate Creek, let’s call it Sammy, was in it's aquatic larval stage. Sammy started as an egg, laid with 100 to 200 others in a safe, underwater place. Sammy’s parents guarded the eggs for six months. Upon maturation, Sammy was on his or her own and free to roam the clean, clear pools of Tate Creek. 


Our Salamander is active mostly at night, feeding on small fish and insects. Its predators include snakes, bigger fish and bigger salamanders. Sammy will thrive in the clean, oxygenated waters of the creek during the spring, summer and fall months. As winter approaches, Sammy will go into hibernation.


There is a 1-4% chance that Sammy will morph into a full breeding adult. This transformation usually occurs in the third year of life. Sammy will loose the gills and become terrestrial, living in the moist banks of the streams. The largest will grow 14 inches long, hence the name “Giant.”


Some Pacific Giant Salamanders don’t reach adult terrestrial form. These individuals are known as Neotenes. The Neotene will stay in aquatic larval form, but will still sexually mature and breed. 


You are most likely to see the Pacific Giant Salamander in its aquatic stage in the cool creeks that feed the Rogue River. Full terrestrial adults are harder to spot as they are active mostly at night. 


It is interesting to note that the Pacific Giant Salamander has a close relative, the Idaho Giant Salamander. This very similar yet genetically distinct species could potentially be spotted on any of our day-river trips: The Moyie, St. Joe, Lochsa and even Mineral County near the Clark Fork River are all a part of the Idaho Giant Salamander’s range.


I obtained most of my information on Pacific Giant Salamanders from the Northwest Wildlife Preservation Society. Wikipedia’s page has interesting information on the different sub-species. Additional details were found on the Province of British Columbia's Ministry of Environment, Land & Parks website.