Sea Turtles to Sidewinders

A Guide to the Most Fascinating Reptiles and Amphibians of the West


By Charles Hood

By Erin Westeen

By Jose Gabriel Martinez-Fonseca

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"For families wanting to explore their local wildlife as well as an engaging read for those with a general interest in the subject.” —Booklist

The American West is home to a wide array of reptiles and amphibians-from the rare and curious to those that can be found in parks and backyards. With this user-friendly guide in hand, discover the most likely-to-be-encountered lizards, snakes, turtles, and amphibians native to Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, plus the western parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Whether you are a dedicated herper or simply have a keen interest in wildlife and natural history, Sea Turtles to Sidewinders—from Charles Hood, Erin Westeen, and Jose Gabriel Martfnez-Fonsec—will help you appreciate and celebrate the amazing diversity represented by reptiles and amphibians of the West.



Pacific giant salamanders

Dicamptodon spp.

They can chirp, growl, or even give a small bark.
2–7 inches; with tail, up to 12 inches
slugs, worms, insects, eggs, rodents, other salamanders
4: Idaho giant salamander (D. aterrimus), Cope’s giant salamander (D. copei), California giant salamander (D. ensatus), coastal giant salamander (D. tenebrosus)

You can tell Pacific giant salamanders by their size—with tail, up to 12 inches long. This is a California giant salamander.

For a salamander, this is a robust-bodied, stout-limbed, broad-nosed “lizard-like” animal. The genus members are collectively known as Pacific giant salamanders, but the four species are distinct from each other genetically, even if all four tend to be orangey brown with a marbling of dark blotches (or dark with tan blotches, in the case of Idaho giant salamander).

Giant salamanders are nocturnal sit-and-wait predators—if they can fit it in their mouth, they will try to eat it. Range follows the coastal fog belt. From south to north, the southernmost species, the California giant salamander, centers on the Bay Area, from Santa Cruz to Sonoma. The coastal giant salamander starts north of that, and its range extends through California to Oregon and Washington and the bottom edge of British Columbia. Cope’s giant salamander crosses that range at right angles, going west to east from the Olympic Peninsula into the Cascades.

Heading east there is a rain shadow gap in eastern Washington, then a fourth species, the Idaho giant salamander, can be found in northern Idaho. It is now mostly confined to headwater streams, because in lower, more accessible forests, aggressive logging muddies the rivers, raises the temperature, and unbalances the ecosystem so badly that they can no longer survive. Clear water and wet forests—that is the primary habitat for all these species.

What wants to eat them? Predators, says one source, include fish, garter snakes, weasels, and water shrews. (Death by water shrew seems an especially obscure way to meet one’s fate.) To defend themselves, all four can squawk or growl, lash their tails, and bite vigorously. In addition, all four have toxic skin secretions.


This group comprises the largest terrestrial salamanders in North America. From New York down to Alabama, there is also the famous hellbender salamander (aka snot otter), 20 inches or more, but it is primarily aquatic.

Pacific giant salamanders share similar life cycles. Adults typically stay within a few hundred feet of streams, venturing out on the forest floor only on rainy nights and during wet winter days. Adults are also found under rocks in streams and under moisture-protecting cover inside the forest, such as under rocks, logs, dense leaf litter, and even pieces of plywood.

The Pacific Northwest is full of salamander habitat (and salamander species).

They mate and breed in spring. Males deposit sperm packets (spermatophores) underwater, and females use those to fertilize up to 200 eggs that they lay inside an underwater nest chamber. To keep anything from eating up her investment, the female guards the eggs until they hatch. Larvae are born in the water, where they swim using an enlarged tail and breathe using gills. The aquatic larvae transform into four-legged salamanders that live on the ground and breathe air with lungs. One exception are the neotenic adults (paedomorphs); they retain their gills and continue to live in water. In some streams, gilled adults may outnumber the transformed, welcome-to-land individuals.

Up close and personal with a California giant salamander.


The Olympic Peninsula species, Cope’s giant salamander, is named for American naturalist Edward Drinker Cope (18401897). For every organism, there is supposed to be a museum specimen that is the voucher or reference unit, what is known as the holotype. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles (2011) provides this interesting detail. “In his will [Cope] asked that his body should be used as the holotype of Homo sapiens, but his skeleton was found to be unsuitable because of disease; it was rumored that he died of syphilis, but the cause is more likely to have been prostatitis complicated by self-medication using formalin and belladonna.” That is, he tried to extend his life by drinking formaldehyde mixed with a toxic and hallucinogenic form of nightshade.

Kids, definitely do not try that at home.


Taricha spp.

A juvenile newt is called an eft.
4–7 inches including tail
insects, worms, eggs, small fish
4: rough-skinned newt (T. granulosa), red-bellied newt (T. rivularis), Sierra newt (T. sierrae), California newt (T. torosa)

Newts have a rubbery, gummy-bear body plan.

PEASANT [pointing at an accused witch]: She turned me into a newt!

KING ARTHUR [skeptical]: A newt?

PEASANT: Well, I got better.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

What is a newt, exactly? Often mistaken for lizards, these amphibians are actually salamanders and haven’t been closely related to lizards for 350 million years. They are often nocturnal, and the four species in our area all look similar: brown back, orange belly, and large, Gollum-round eyes. With stocky bodies, wide toes, and a lumbering gait, newts are quite cute. But be careful, as they are toxic! Males can grow “nuptial pads” on their fleshy toes in the breeding season to help them grip their partners.

Moist or rainy nights are best for newt-hunting; this California newt was found near Berkeley.


The most widespread species of this group, the rough-skinned newt, ranges up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Santa Cruz, and all four species stay west of the Cascades and the Sierra Crest. Seattle and Portland and Berkeley and the Merced River going into Yosemite all have rough-skinned newts, but there are no naturally occurring newts in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, or Colorado.

Of the others, red-bellied newts occur only in Northern California, both north of San Francisco and also around Santa Cruz. The Sierra newt does indeed live in the Sierra Nevada foothills and forests; it tolerates drier living conditions than do the others. The California newt is coastal and southern: a subspecies lives in the Southern Sierra, but the rest prefer the coast from Mendocino south to San Diego. It is the species one looks for around Los Angeles.

The one exception to the coast-only rule is a cluster of rough-skinned newt records centered on Moscow, Idaho. The idea of newts in the Palouse seems a bit like an oxymoron. Do they feel lonely or brave, being so far east of the others?

To see a newt in the wild, just think wet. Since newts are salamanders, that means newts will generally be in and around streams, under damp rocks, and waiting for rainy nights more than they will be hoping for Santa Ana winds and noon light. To find a good spot near you, look up Taricha on iNaturalist or search the advice shared in the Field Herp Forum. Even better: find a new spot nobody knows about, just by exploring little-used paths along shady streams. You can find newts even inside the Portland city limits.

Threats to newts include habitat loss, water pollution (they have very sensitive skin), and exotic fish introduced to their streams. One less obvious threat is speeding cars. Thousands of newts die on roads each year as they leave their home territory in search of mates. One recent iNaturalist report from Los Gatos (near San Jose) shares this sad reality: “I found 230 dead newts on Alma Bridge Road this morning in 2 hours.” That tells us it’s time to slow down and look at the scenery—both the wildlife and our inner sense of peace will appreciate it.

Wet forests are perfect for newts and other salamanders.


In each of the species, the newt’s color pattern serves two purposes. Dark-on-top is basic camouflage, and the orange bellies can be displayed in times of stress to warn off hungry snakes and eager children. The warning is needed because newts produce tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that shuts down the heart and lungs of potential newt-snacking predators. How they make this toxin is not yet fully understood; they might sequester it from microbes. In any case, if you handle any of our newts (which we don’t encourage), make sure you don’t have any open cuts and do wash your hands afterward—this toxin works on humans, too.

Their nemesis is the garter snake (this page). As newts evolved defenses, garter snakes countered that by evolving immunity to tetrodotoxins.

This fact reminds us that evolution is always a high-ante poker game. “I see your bucket of poison and raise you three spines and a detachable tail. Call.”

slender salamanders

Batrachoseps spp.

Young have gills while inside the egg but hatch as air-breathers.
1–2.5 inches, plus a tail often longer than body
snails, small insects (mites, springtails, beetles), spiders
22, almost all with restricted ranges

Slender salamanders are so thin and wiggly, they look like worms.

This is one of the book’s two lungless salamander species clusters, and like the ensatina complex (see next entry), slender salamanders breathe through their skin and the linings of their mouth. Not having to fill up your chest with lungs makes it easier to feed, breed, and rest in slim, damp places, like between tree bark and a rotting log or in the crevices of mossy cliffs. Slender salamanders are able to exploit microhabitats, finding moisture even inside the rotting base of an old yucca, or on a north-facing hillside where late snowmelt keeps the leaf litter damp.


Evolutionary biologists note that this array of 20-plus species does not represent an adaptive radiation, in which, for example, one finch on a lava-coated island evolves into two species, one of which is good at cracking open small seeds, and the other, with a different beak, is better at finding and eating large seeds. Instead, this array represents non-adaptive radiation: the plurality of slender salamanders speciated not because of any major habitat differences between one site and the next but because of geographic separation. There simply was not enough gene flow from isolated group to isolated group, so now we have an abundance of ecologically similar salamanders, each of which represents a different twig on the tree of life.

That means that there is a San Simeon slender salamander, a different one in the Inyo Mountains, another one in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and yet another on the Kern Plateau. The Oregon slender salamander prefers closed-canopy red cedar, Douglas-fir, and maple forests, though it can make do in post-logging successional forests and even suburban parks. It is only found in north-central Oregon, on both sides of the Cascades.

This group breathes through their skin, hence their alternative common name, the lungless salamanders.

Sometimes checking the scientific names reveals interesting history. Tehachapi slender salamander (Batrachoseps stebbinsi) has a specific epithet that remembers a famous herpetology professor. The Hell Hollow slender salamander (B. diabolicus) has an epithet that sounds ominous indeed, but it is merely a nod to the type location in Maricopa County, California. And of course behavior can inspire names, such as the gregarious slender salamander (B. gregarius); in this species, females share communal nests.

From wrens to shrews, forests like this one hold salamanders—and many other treasures besides.


The short answer to “How do we know what lives where?” is “Well, we don’t, not yet, not completely.” If you want to contribute to science right away, head out and look for things—but do your “looking” in places nobody else has visited yet. A forum for herpers was sharing all the places that the Tehachapi slender salamander was being found, places it should “not” have been, if we just went by previous reports. As one of the posts pointed out, “It is important to avoid having assumptions about habitat use become confirmed dogma because nobody bothered to look anywhere else.”

Academic study can help direct energies and give context for discoveries, but we hope amateurs reading this book are encouraged as well. There is a place for everybody in this conversation, and if you don’t have a Ph.D., don’t feel bad—Charles Darwin didn’t either.

ensatina salamander

Ensatina eschscholtzii

One of the best examples worldwide of a ring species complex.
1.5–3 inches, plus a tail of 1–2 inches
spiders, beetles, crickets, worms, snails

Ensatinas form a ring species complex: each population can interbreed with the one closest to it, but at each end, the populations no longer share direct gene flow.

Ensatinas are lungless salamanders (they breathe through their skin and the linings of their mouths), and because they have no lungs, they can be long, flexible, and thin—almost as thin as a tiny snake. In fact, getting rid of your lungs means you can be thin enough to exploit the moist-crevice niche of habitat choices. Another group in this book, the slender salamanders (this page), has evolved the same way.

Colors vary. Many ensatinas are pink, orange, or reddish, but some subspecies can be all black with yellow blotches or slate gray with orange. Some of those forms may be distinct species—or else, maybe not. Authorities have yet to come to consensus.


In the comic strip B.C., the anteater character goes “Zot!” when his tongue spears a juicy ant. (Zot is also the “war cry” of UC Irvine, whose mascot is an anteater.) Ensatinas might say this too, at least in the quiet of their own minds, since their tongues are covered with a sticky mucus and can dart forward with agile dexterity to zap out-of-reach prey. The last thought of some small, unlucky beetle might be, “Wait a minute, you can’t do that. You’re not a frog!”

This is one of the more widely distributed groups in the book. The range starts in western British Columbia and generally stays west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon. In California it splits into two strands: the left side follows the coast ranges into Baja, and the right follows both sides of the Sierra Nevada down to Tehachapi. This distribution in California, in which the salamanders encircle the Central Valley but do not enter it, is typical of a ring-species complex: each subspecies can mate with the adjacent one, but the subspecies that meet at the base of the “ring” are no longer able to interbreed.

Damp places, hidden places are preferred: and so, under logs, under boards, under stones, burrowed down under thick leaf litter—that is where ensatinas thrive, and that includes understories of redwood forest, oak woodland, and even regular chaparral. Truly waterlogged soil is too saturated, so this species wants the Goldilocks just-rightness of protected and damp, but not soggy and definitely not desiccated. In productive habitat, ensatinas may live 15 years and, in all that time, never leave a 100-foot circle.

Look for these salamanders under logs or near streams. They range from Canada to Baja.


To find salamanders, go out on mild, rainy nights, but it’s better for them if you don’t handle them much or even at all. One defensive strategy is they can secrete a sticky mucous, and it’s such a thick coating of slime, it can muck up the mouthparts of small snakes. You don’t want it on your hands, either, and if the ensatinas get dried out from being handled (or if they get too badly stressed), it is definitely not good for their health. Wetting your hands before a brief moment of show and tell with the kids is probably fine, but for this and all the species in the book, be aware of what the animal itself is experiencing. Hippocrates had it right: “First, do not harm.”

tailed frogs

Ascaphus spp.

Tadpoles take two to four years to mature into adult frogs.
1–2 inches
tadpoles graze algae; adults eat insects, spiders, snails
2: Rocky Mountain tailed frog (A. montanus), coastal tailed frog (A. truei)

“Frog-spotting, like bird-watching, takes patience and perseverance”—so says an article in National Geographic. Here is a frog that tests both patience and perseverance. The tailed frog is small, silent, nocturnal, and found only in swift, steep, cold rivers. In comparison to those challenges, looking for spotted owls or the sparrow-sized black rail seems like a walk in the park.

Both species of tailed frogs are plain brown, with vertical pupils and a variable dark eye stripe. Until recently they were considered to be just one species. Only the male is tailed, and it’s actually not a tail but an external part of his cloaca. You tell the two species apart by range: both live in forest-lined torrents, but one is found only in the mountains of Idaho and western Montana, and the other lives in the Pacific Northwest, from Northern California to British Columbia. Look for them along rivers shaded by redwood, spruce, fir, or hemlock, or, less commonly, under deciduous trees like alder and maple.

The Rocky Mountain tailed frog can be told from other frogs by size, habitat, and the lack of a round “eardrum” (aka tympanum), that bulging circle behind the eye.


Due to ancestral skeletal features having to do with the particular arrangement of ribs, vertebra, and pelvis shape, the tailed frog is sometimes called primitive. A skeptic might say, “How can you tell—don’t all frogs look a bit primitive?” And in rebuttal, an evolutionary biologist might add that any given animal comes out of millions of years of trial by fire; no maladapted organism would have made it this far if it wasn’t good at survival and reproduction. Everything alive now is field-tested and highly refined.

The tailed frog’s “tail” is part of a device used in mating.

One interesting adaptation of tailed frogs is how their tadpoles function. Usually you expect tadpoles in warm, still, shallow water. The streams where tailed frogs are found are too cold and fast for other frogs, but their tadpoles have sucker-lipped faces and can cling to the underside of stones, scraping off algal film with their teeth. They do not grow quickly, but they do grow steadily; sources disagree on the specifics, but in general, it seems to take two years or longer for them to mature to adulthood. In contrast, the tadpoles of some toads mature in 14 days (!), though a month or two is more typical. Tailed frog tadpoles have a very good grip, and according to one field guide, they will “hang on to anything solid, including human flesh.”

Despite their unique external morphology, tailed frogs mate like most other anurans via amplexus. Female tailed frogs can store viable sperm for up to two years. When finally ready, the large, sticky eggs are deposited in bead-like rows under rocks.

The only thing harder than finding tailed frogs at night is finding their eggs. Birdwatchers who count their orioles, tanagers, and lazuli buntings have no idea how good they have it.

African clawed frog

Xenopus laevis

The trilling call can be repeated 100 times a minute.
2–5 inches
fish, other frogs, invertebrates

Like the American bullfrog (this page), this is another mouth that swims. Why the “clawed” part of the name? It uses its toothed jaws to hold its prey while shredding it with its rear claws and pushing it into its mouth with its front legs.


On Sale
Feb 15, 2022
Page Count
256 pages
Timber Press

Charles Hood

Charles Hood

About the Author

Born in Los Angeles, Charles Hood has birded all 58 California counties, photographed all 21 California missions, and helped to add a new bird to the official California list (Hawaiian petrel, also called the ʻuaʻu). He has been a dishwasher, factory worker, ski instructor, Fulbright scholar, bird guide in Africa, and an artist-in-residence in Antarctica. Charles is the co-author of Wild LA and Sea Turtles to Sidewinders. Recently retired, he lives in the Mojave Desert.

Learn more about this author