|Blackbelly and Shovelnose Salamanders|
Common blackbelly, dwarf blackbelly, and shovelnose salamanders are medium to large desmognathine salamanders that are common inhabitants of springs and streams in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. Adults have historically been used as live fish bait and are sold as "spring lizards". The shovelnose salamander was previously placed in a separate genus, Leurognathus, but DNA analysis has shown this species to be a member of Desmognathus and very closely related to the blackbelly salamanders.
Common Blackbelly Salamander, Desmognathus quadramaculatus:
A large (4-21 cm), robust dusky salamander with a black belly and a sharply keeled tail. The toes have black, cornified tips. Usually there is one or two rows of whiteish specks or spots along either side of the body and a pale line from the front corner of the eye to the angle of the jaw. The dorsal coloration is usually a dark green, brown, or blackish with irregular, lighter blotches. Some individuals are tan or have extensive brassy flecking. Coloration fades with age. This is the largest species of the genus Desmognathus. There are no conspicuous differences between the sexes, but males have slightly enlarged premaxillary teeth, a small mental gland under the chin, papillose cloacal lips, and are larger overall than females. The range of this species includes southern West Virginia to northern Georgia.
Dwarf Blackbelly Salamander, Desmognathus folkertsi:
First described in 2002, dwarf blackbelly salamanders are smaller than D. quadramaculatus with a slightly different color pattern. While the belly is also black, the dorsum is usually a vermiculite pattern of brown and black though in some specimens the browns and blacks are arranged in irregular blotching. Both the toes and limbs are proportionately smaller than D. quadramaculatus, and the tail is rounder with a lower tail fin. The range of this species is restricted to Union County, Georgia.
Shovelnose Salamander, Desmognathus marmoratus:
Ranging from 8-15 cm in length, shovelnose salamanders look very similar to blackbelly salamanders and can be very difficult to distinguish. Their colors, patterns, and overall body shape approximate those of D. quadramaculatus but they usually have two rows of irregular, lighter blotches down their back. The head is slightly flatter and more wedge-shaped than that of blackbelly salamanders, but this can be quite subjective. The only way to be 100% sure of identification is to open the mouth and check the internal nares--the shovelnose salamander has slit-like internal nares compared to the round, open nares of blackbelly salamanders. Albinos are fairly common in some populations. Males are slightly larger than females overall and have relatively wider heads and papillose cloacal lips. The range of this species includes the southern Appalachian Mountains from southwestern Virginia through eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina to northeastern Georgia and northwestern South Carolina.
Natural Range and Habitat:
All three species occur in a variety of cold-water environments ranging from small springs and seepages to small trout streams in the Appalachian Mountains. Juveniles of D. quadramaculatus and D. folkertsi tend to be more aquatic, inhabiting rocks and gravel piles in and along stream banks, while the adults prefer to inhabit rock crevices and rocky debris at the water/bank interface. D. quadramaculatus can be found in southeast West Virginia south through the mountains of western Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and northeast Georgia. D. folkertsi is currently only known from a single river drainage in northern Georgia, though it likely has a more extensive range. It shares habitat with the blackbelly salamander but tends to be slightly more aquatic; blackbellies tend to prowl the shore while dwarf blackbellies tend to be found in the stream itself. D. marmoratus are decidedly more aquatic as adults than the other two species and tend to inhabit second and third order streams instead of headwater streams. Ranging from western Virginia south through eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, western South Carolina, and extreme northeast Georgia, it is often found together with the blackbelly salamander.
Blackbelly and shovelnose salamanders require a large tank with cold 7-18°C (45-65°F), well-aerated, turbulent water and many rocks breaking the surface. The idea is to mimic a stream bank as much as possible, with a strong current and varying water depths from 2 – 20 cm (1 to 8 in). If you cannot maintain temps of 20°C (68°F) or below, then this is not the species for you as they can be very sensitive to warm temperatures, especially D. marmoratus. As they are lungless, the water must also be well-aerated or they can asphyxiate. Clean water is critical, and filtration is absolutely essential.
Adults are territorial in the wild and as such tank space should be carefully considered, probably 4 adults maximum in a 20 gallon-long tank (75 x 30 x 30 cm). I have never witnessed any injurious squabbles in captivity and weaker/shyer individuals seem to do well regardless, but I have seen some aggressive posturing and snapping. Large size differences can definitely lead to cannibalism in such territorial encounters. Captives appear to become acquainted with one another after time, and territorial aggression seems to diminish significantly.
A strong current is often easy enough to produce using various power filters, powerheads, or large airstones. The colder temperatures are more difficult and require either a temperature-controlled room or basement or an aquarium chiller. Land areas consisting of large rocks breaking the surface or gravel bars are essential and the animals often rest with their heads or the majority of their bodies out of the water.
Given the temperature and water restrictions, this would seem to be a very difficult and undesirable species, but is in reality a very hardy and fascinating species when kept properly. If you can meet the temperature requirements, they are a fantastic vivarium subject and are much like a North American equivalent of Pachytriton newts. Adult captives are fairly active, become tame, and are perhaps some of the most overlooked species for the hobby.
These salamanders are known to both forage for prey and ambush passing prey in the wild. Prey items consist of a variety of invertebrates (insect, crayfish, arachnids, worms, mollusks) as well as other smaller salamanders such as Plethodon, Eurycea, and other Desmognathus, though they have been shown to not be a significant predator of other salamanders as previously thought. In captivity they will eat virtually any moving prey small enough to be swallowed, including large crickets, mealworms, night crawlers, etc. They will also take non-living foods such as strips of beef heart and frozen bloodworms in the water once they have become tame. Prey will be taken both underwater and above water.
Very little is known about the courtship behavior of these species, but it is suspected to be similar to other Desmognathus species. The eggs are usually found in summer beneath rocks in fast-flowing water and can be deposited in clumps or singly in layers. The larvae hatch with all four limbs developed and can take 3-4 years to metamorphose.
Beachy, Christopher King. 1994. Community ecology in streams: Effects of two species of predatory salamanders on prey species of salamander. Herpetologica. 50 (2):129-136.
Bruce, R. C. 1985. Larval periods, population structure and the effects of stream drift in larvae of the salamanders Desmognathus quadramaculatus and Leurognathus marmoratus in a southern Appalachian stream. Copeia. 1985 847-854.
Bruce, R. C. . 1988. Life history variation in the salamander Desmognathus quadramaculatus. Herpetologica. 44: 218-227.
Camp, Carlos D. 1996. Bite scar patterns in the black-bellied salamander, Desmognathus quadramaculatus. Journal of Herpetology. 30 (4):543-546.
Camp, Carlos D. and Tyler P. Lee. 1996. Intraspecific spacing and interaction within a population of Desmognathus quadramaculatus. Copeia. 1996 (1):78-84.
Camp, Carlos D. 1997. The status of the black-bellied salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) as a predator of heterospecific salamanders in Appalachian streams. Journal of Herpetology. 31 (4):613-616.
Camp, Carlos D., Stephen G. Tilley, Richard M. Austin, Jr., and Jeremy L. Marshall. 2002. A New Species of Black-bellied Salamander (Genus Desmognathus) from the Appalachian Mountains of Northern Georgia. Herpetologica 58(4): 471-484.
Davic, Robert D. 1991. Ontogenetic Shifts in Diet of Desmognathus quadramaculatus. Journal of Herpetology. 25: 108-111.
Petranka, James W.; 1998, Salamanders of the United States and Canada, Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington.
Smith, Charles K., James W. Petranka and Rebecca Barwick. 1996. Desmognathus quadramaculatus (blackbelly salamander). Reproduction. Herpetological Review. 27 (3):136.
Written by N. Nelson in May 2001. Revised December 2003.