Red-cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani)

GenusPlethodon (1)
SizeAverage length: 11.2 cm (2)

The red-cheeked salamander is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The red-cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani) is a medium-sized blue-black terrestrial salamander found only in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, eastern United States (3). A number of salamanders in this region have extremely similar markings, but the red-cheeked salamander can be identified by its bright cheek patches, which are usually red, but occasionally orange or yellow, and are brighter on younger individuals (4). 

The underparts of the red-cheeked salamander are a dull bluish-grey or flesh colour, which contrast with the upperparts and the deep brown head. The underside of the tail is darker than the belly, and the legs and feet are light greyish-brown. The juvenile red-cheeked salamander has pale underparts and red spots on the upperparts (2). 

The red-cheeked salamander is a relatively robust, rounded salamander with a nearly circular tail that tapers to a slender tip. The tail usually measurers about half of the body length. The limbs are stout and larger than in other Plethodon species, while the eyes are large and protrude from the wide head, which has a pointed snout (2). 

The male red-cheeked salamander is smaller than the female, and may also be identified by a slightly more pointed lower jaw, and by conspicuous saucer-shaped glands under the chin that develop during the breeding season (2) (5). Individual red-cheeked salamanders tend to be larger at lower elevations (2).

Occurring only in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the eastern United States, the red-cheeked salamander is found from Mount Sterling to the mountains north of Bryson City (2).

The red-cheeked salamander prefers the wet, cool climate found in the upper elevations of heavily forested slopes. It is often found among leaf litter, or in spaces under rocks and rotten logs (2) (4). It tolerates a degree of disturbance and also occurs in secondary forest (1).

The red-cheeked salamander is mainly active ffrom mid-May to early October, becoming most abundant from July to September. It is a nocturnal, generalist predator that forages on the forest floor for any moving animal of digestible size, although it may also climb low plants on humid, foggy nights whilst hunting. Individual red-cheeked salamanders defend territories, with males occupying larger territories than females. When temperatures drop to around freezing, the red-cheeked salamander resides in its burrow deep underground, with no surface activity until spring the following year (2). 

Mating occurs in August and September. The eggs are laid in underground burrows in May and guarded by the female (2) (4). Clutch size varies with the size of the female, and the largest femalse may produce up to ten eggs, while smaller females may produce as few as three or four. The eggs take two months to hatch. The juvenile salamanders, which hatch directly from the egg and do not have an aquatic larval stage, emerge from the burrow in May the following year. The juveniles reach maturity in their fifth year. The female red-cheeked salamander breeds only every second year, as it is difficult to capture enough food after laying to produce enough energy for new eggs, before cold weather halts mating. This means that the red-cheeked salamander has a rather slow reproduction rate for an animal of such small size (2). 

The red-cheeked salamander communicates by touch and with pheromones that are applied to the substrate. It is capable of exuding a slime from its tail when disturbed, which may stick to the feathers around the eyes of avian predators and interfere with vision by gluing the eyelids shut (2).

Although the red-cheeked salamander is thought to be fairly abundant with a stable population, it has an extremely small range, meaning it is vulnerable to destructive changes to its habitat. Fortunately its entire range is encompassed by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, meaning the risk of such threats is fairly low (1). However, where clear-cutting of forests has been permitted, the red-cheeked salamander has largely disappeared within two years of the felling (6). Clear-cutting has been a significant threat to salamanders in the region, and is responsible for a nine percent decline in salamander populations. Logging exposes terrestrial salamanders to altered microclimates, increased soil compaction and desiccation, as well as reduced habitat complexity (2). 

Additional threats to the red-cheeked salamander include illegal collection (3), as well as factors that affect its forest habitat, such as global warming, acid raid and pest infestations (1).

Although the red-cheeked salamander does not receive any specific listing on protective legislation, it is afforded a degree of protection from threats such as clear-cutting, as its range is completely within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1).

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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. AmphibiaWeb - Plethodon jordani (March, 2011)
  3. Dodd, Jr, C.K. (2004) The Amphibians of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
  4. Davidson Herpetology - Jordan’s salamander (March, 2011)
  5. Jensen, J.B., Camp, Whit Gibbons, C.D. and Elliott, M.J. (2008) Amphibians and reptiles of Georgia. University of Georgia Press, Georgia.
  6. Ash, A.N. (1997) Disappearance and return of plethodontid salamanders to clearcut plots in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. Conservation Biology, 11: 983-989.