Salamander hide-and-seek


What wildlife species live in Oregon? How do we know? Generally speaking, wildlife surveys are a way to help answer questions about wild animals by making observations in the field. Those questions can be as simple as “Does a certain species live here?” or much more complex. Sometimes we’re just looking to learn more about a place by seeing what animals are around. Other times we’re keeping track of species that may be in danger of going extinct. By adding to our knowledge we can make more informed decisions. 

From butterflies to birds to blue whales, there’s value in knowing about wildlife, and the work is almost as diverse as the life forms we monitor. This is certainly one of the things that attracted me to wildlife work. Just as I appreciate biodiversity, I also appreciate a little diversity in my work. While I haven’t gone looking for blue whales (yet), I have spent the last few years as a wildlife technician in the Pacific Northwest looking for owls, other birds of prey and, occasionally, amphibians. 

When I’m not in the field, I’m going over the data and working with a team on a variety of wildlife projects and publications. Apart from my job, I’ve been fortunate enough to help survey sea turtles in Greece, otters in India, nesting waterfowl in Alaska and butterflies in southern Oregon. It’s a lot of fun.

forest seen from truck window
Headed for the headwaters


It’s always satisfying to find what you’re looking for during a wildlife survey, but there really is no guarantee. You may know the odds, whether they’re for or against locating any of the critters in question, but you just won’t know until you get out there and do the work. You’re up early (or late, in the case of nocturnal surveys), you’ve read papers and protocols, the habitat is there… but try as you might, sometimes you get “skunked.” Wild animals have lives of their own, after all, and they likely won’t regret it if they never get the chance to meet you. It can leave a surveyor feeling a bit defeated. So it goes! And so it went on a recent attempt to find an interesting amphibian in the headwater streams of Oregon’s north coast, the elusive Columbia torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton kezeri).

stream habitat
Looks like pretty good torrent habitat


Torrent salamanders are a group of four species in the genus Rhyacotriton of the family Rhyacotritonidae. They’re found only in the Pacific Northwest, in Washington, Oregon and northwestern California, where they reside in and around cold, clean streams, seeps and cascades in moist, mature forests. Distribution of Columbia torrents specifically is limited to the Coast Range of northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. This group of salamanders is of conservation concern due to their limited range, low adaptability and threats to their habitat. Currently, the Columbia torrent salamander, as well as the Cascade torrent, is undergoing status reviews by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if protections under the Endangered Species Act are warranted.

Locating good potential habitat is step one in searching for Columbia torrents. A shallow, moving, forested headwater with a rocky bottom is a good place to start looking. The wet forests of the north Oregon Coast Range are full of such streams, each unique in the way it flows and the features that make up the substrate, bank and surrounding forest. Some meander. Some run down massive rocks and cascade into pools clear as glass. Some are gravelly. Some run under fallen wood for 50 feet or more. Moss and ferns usually line the banks and top the rocks and logs sitting as islands in the current. Often it’s only flecks of direct sun that ever reach these forested streams, and they remain relatively cool and damp year-round.

Once you’ve found a promising stream, the search for torrent salamanders begins. This requires being down in, as well as along, the stream. Walking steep slopes through devil’s club, salmonberry and the surprisingly sharp needles of Sitka spruce is sometimes the only option for getting to the water. 

On a recent survey for salamanders, when I reached the stream I carefully lifted and moved rocks and other debris in the stream bed and along the banks to see if a salamander was sheltering underneath. I found myself stooping, slipping, almost crawling, and getting a little wet and muddy as I made my way up the stream. Torrent salamander surveys that take place in November and December, as mine did, can be a chilly experience, but the right clothing makes a big difference, and hiking usually generates plenty of warmth. 

Ultimately, the Columbia torrent salamander was the winner of our game of hide-and-seek. That’s not to say I found nothing out there; not even close. Exploring forested headwaters and giving your full attention will reveal a whole world of life. Banana slugs, snail-eating beetles, colorful mushrooms, crayfish and, of course, amphibians, to name just a few inhabitants of these forests. They’re all out there, and so are the torrents… somewhere.

Banana slug next to mushroom
Pacific banana slug taking interest in a chanterelle mushroom


Baby giant salamander in a hand
Coastal giant salamander (juvenile) found in a small stream 


If you want to learn more about the Columbia torrent salamander and other amphibians in Oregon, the Oregon Forest Resources Institute has a new publication about forest amphibians you can order or download here. Other good resources include the Oregon Conservation Strategy website.

Jon Cox
Wildlife Technician
Cafferata Consulting, LLC


9755 SW Barnes Rd., Suite 210        
Portland, OR 97225        
Phone: 971-673-2944        
Fax: 971-673-2946

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