The Four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum), is a minute species of plethodontid (lungless salamander). It is a monotypic species, being the sole representative of the Hemidactylium genus. Their range extends from southeastern Canada down through to the Gulf of Mexico. Populations also exist to the west, in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

These salamanders are coloured with shades of brown or grey, sometimes with bits of black spots on the dorsal surface. The belly and underside is white, with black flecks which creates a striking ‘salt and pepper’ pattern. The tail contains a conspicuous ringed-grove, which allows for the salamander to voluntarily detach the tail if threatened or seized by predators. Upon detachment, the tail will continue to ‘riggle’ allowing a distraction for the amphibian to escape.

Four-toed salamanders are considered to be rare or uncommon over much of their distribution. The Four-toed salamander is thought to be in a state of decline throughout its range due primarily to its specialized habitat requirements in conjunction with destruction, degradation, and fragmentation of wetlands and forests (Harding 1997). Hemidactylium scutatum is currently listed as endangered in Indiana and Minnesota, threatened in Illinois, and has special concern or rare status in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missouri (Lannoo 1998).

According to AmphibiaWeb, early concern was expressed by Wright (1918), who stated that Four-toed salamanders were vanishing in New York due to draining of wetlands. Four-toed salamanders are considered Rare in Florida (Means, 1992) and southern New England (Klemens, 1993), and worthy of Special Concern in Maine (Burgason, 1999).

In my native Canada, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) considers the salamander to be rare, or at least rarely seen.

For me personally, the chance to see any salamander species in the wild is always a tremendous experience. Rarer species, only heighten this joy. 2014 was exceptional, however, due to the dozens of Four-toed salamander observations that I collected. Many of these were encountered throughout the Thousand Islands region along the St. Lawrence River. A Natural Heritage Review of the Thousand Islands Ecosystem (Oliver K. Reichl, 2002), indicates that although the Four-toed salamanders range is within the area, none had actually been observed by the author. This made my findings that much more special on a personal level. Record data from the Ontario Reptile And Amphibian Atlas project also confirmed that my observations within this area were also the first to be recorded for this species.

Within this area most of the Four-toed salamanders that were observed were found in typical habitat for this species. Damp areas within Forests that are rich in various mosses, often adjacent to forested ponds, or flooded areas. However, one area some 3 hours north of the St. Lawrence River region was also particularly rich in Four-Toes. Here most were seen along the edge of a forest under man-made cover that had been left behind, such as flat boards, and even a piece of floor laminate. Under most of these pieces of cover multiple Four-toes were found. Under the boards, they would often be sharing this cover with other salamander species (Plethodon cinereus, Notophthalmus viridescens, and juvenile Ambystoma maculatum). Again, record data from the Ontario Reptile And Amphibian Atlas project also confirmed that my observations within this area too were also the first to be recorded for this species.

Given the overall rarity of the species, such observations have given me a sense of optimism in terms of the preservation of salamanders (and other amphibians) as a whole – although there are much efforts to be made still!

By Matt Ellerbeck