Ambystoma californienseCalifornia Tiger Salamander

Geographic Range

Once considered to be subspecies of Ambystoma tigrinum, Ambystoma californiense is now considered to be their own distinct species. Ambystoma californiense are endemic to San Joaquin-Sacramento river valleys. California tiger salamanders live in woodlands and sage scrub communities of low altitude areas between the valleys and foothills of Tulare and Butte counties of Central California. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)


Although California tiger salamanders are mostly limited to lower elevations (427 m), there have been documentations of sightings in elevations of 3,600 m. They require wet environments for reproduction. This includes but is not limited to vernal, ephemeral, rain-filled pools and sagponds. Although permanent aquatic habitats can support California tiger salamanders, they are rarely found in areas that can be inhabited by potential fish predators. Adults spend most of their time in underground burrows when they are not actively trying to breed. Because California tiger salamanders require wet areas for breeding, these burrows are typically found within 1 mile of their breeding grounds. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994; Nafis, 2015)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • temporary pools
  • Range elevation
    1,090 (high) m
  • Average elevation
    427 m
    1400.92 ft

Physical Description

Compared with most salamanders, California tiger salamanders are considered relatively large and broad with relatively curved snouts. Full grown males are on average about 30 mm longer than full grown females, where full grown males are on average 200 mm long and can grow up to 207 mm. Females grow up to 170 mm. However, both males and females have similar snout to vent lengths of 90 mm. California tiger salamanders have black colored eyes that project out of the head. The skin on their backs are black with usual spots of yellow, pale yellow, and white. On the underside, they are usually white, pale yellow, or yellow. Males can be differentiated by females by the swollen cloacas during breeding, their typical larger body sizes, and longer tails.

Although there is no data on the masses and resting metabolic rates (RMR) of adult California tiger salamanders, related species are on average 126 grams as adults and have RMRs of 0.002 Watts. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994; Joao, 2015)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    9.4 g
    0.33 oz
  • Range length
    170 to 200 mm
    6.69 to 7.87 in


Salamanders have two distinct life stages. The first life stage is when they are aquatic larvae, where the live in the same pools where they hatched. Following metamorphosis, salamanders become adapted to living in terrestrial environments and only go back to their former aquatic habitats to breed.

Ambystoma salamanders follow genetic sexual determination with sex chromosomes, where females are the heterogametic sex. Ambystoma californiense eggs hatch typically within ten to fourteen days after being laid. Upon hatching, larvae can be 11.5 mm to 14.2 mm in length. Typically, amphibians must attain a certain body size in order to metamorphose. California tiger salamanders achieve this size between 60 to 94 days from when they hatch in their breeding pools. Generally, the larger the breeding pools and the longer the duration before they dry out, the larger the larvae become. With larger larvae, salamanders metamorphose into larger juveniles. The entire process from start to finish for metamorphosis takes up to 10 weeks and the success is highly dependent on whether or not the breeding pool retains sufficient water. At the end of metamorphosis, the snout to vent length ranges from 41 to 78 mm. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)


California tiger salamanders are usually 6 years old when they first migrate to breeding ponds, where less than half breed more than once. However, males are able to breed from the age of 2 and females at 2-3. California tiger salamanders migrate to their breeding ponds during the winter rainy months from November to May. Males often depart for the breeding ponds during the month of December where females would begin their migration in January. Earliest migrations have been observed to occur in October with the first rainfalls, but the majority move in December or later.

California tiger salamander migration for breeding is highly dependent upon rainfall volume and occurrence. In years where rainfall occurs late, females do not migrate to ponds and in years where there is sparse rains or droughts, males do not migrate to breeding ponds as well. In dryer breeding seasons, females are less likely to migrate to breeding ponds. In light of this, breeding can either occur in very short periods, winters of sparse rains, or over longer periods, where the breeding season has adequate amounts of rainfall.

California tiger salamanders typically breed in ponds that are uninhabited by fish predators. California tiger salamanders historically relied primarily on vernal pools for breeding but due to the destruction of their natural habitats, they have invaded pools constructed for cattle. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994; Lannoo, 2005; Nafis, 2015)

There is no current information on the reproductive behavior of Ambystoma californiense. However, it’s sister species, Ambystoma triginum reproductive behavior is highly characterized. Ambystoma triginum males have a preference for females who are larger because they often produce larger clutches. Female sexual selection are currently under investigation. Initiating copulation is an aggressive process in Ambystoma tigrinum, which is initiated with the male shoving the female.

Ambystoma tigrinum male-male interference strategies are dependent on the sizes of the males competing. Males that were larger than the ones that were copulating would often shove the smaller female, disrupting the copulating process. After interference, the interrupting male would then proceed to copulate with the female. Males that are smaller than the males that were actively copulating would exhibit female-like behavior. The female-mimic would align itself next to the copulating couple and proceed to deposit its spermatophore on the female eggs. (Howard, et al., 1997; Williams and DeWoody, 2009)

  • Breeding interval
    California tiger salamanders breed once during the winter months
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season can occur as early as October and finish in May
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average time to hatching
    2-4 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Besides the yolk that is provided in the egg, it is not known if there is any parental investment in Ambystoma californiense.


California tiger salamanders reach sexual maturity rather early but do not begin to breed until they are about 5-6 years old. It has been reported that California tiger salamanders live past 10 years of age. However, less than 50% of those that live past 10 years old migrate back to their breading ponds.

There have not been extensive studies on the survivorship of Ambystoma californiense. In some small studies, A. californiense had survivorship rates of 4% that lived to maturity. In more extensive studies, a related species, Ambystoma talpoideum had survivorship rates of up to 20% of metamorphs from a single cohort that lived to maturity. In another related species, Ambystoma opacum, had survivorship rates ranging from 6% to 21% for metamorphs that lived to maturity.

In any ambystomatids, many mark-recapture studies have shown estimations of 60% survivorship among mature adult populations. (Trenham, et al., 2000)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    25 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    12-15 years


Adult California tiger salamanders are typically found in rodent burrows in depths between 0.2 m and 1.36 m underground. They usually occupy burrows constructed by Spermophilus beecheyi and Thomomys bottae. It is speculated that Ambystoma californiense may share a commensal relationship with Spermophilus beecheyi, since Ambystoma californiense are often found in Spermophilus beecheyi occupied burrows. It is important for Ambystoma californiense to occupy the same burrows as Spermophilus beecheyi because Ambystoma californiense do not make their own burrows and without Spermophilus beecheyi, the burrows often collapse without their maintenance. Adult California tiger salamanders live underground during dry summers and estivation. When required, they leave to travel on the surface only during the night. Once breeding season begins, they migrate to their breeding pools and return to their mammal burrows once finished. Adults are able to move of up to speeds of 50.8 m/hour where juveniles can move of up to speeds of 30.9 m/hour. (Loredo, et al., 1996)

Home Range

In some studies, groups traveled up to 580 m from their breeding ponds to their burrows. However, 95% travel no more than 173 m from their burrows to the breeding pools. It is important to note that migration distances between burrows and breeding pools are related to how much precipitation there is during the migratory period. With more precipitation, California tiger salamanders can travel longer distances relative to when there is a less rain. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)

Communication and Perception

Communication through sound is not particularly important in intraspecific communication in salamanders. Salamanders are known to bark, hiss, and click but most of these sounds are to illicit anti-predator behavior. These noises are non-communicative and do not illicit consistent responses from other salamanders.

Because most salamanders live underground, it is suspected that coloration does not convey any intraspecies information. Tail wagging and body postures have been reported to denote aggressive behaviors in some species of salamanders.

The primary mode of communication between salamanders is through chemical signals. These chemicals can be excreted through pores of the skin or through fecal matter and sometimes even through glandular secretions. Chemical cues aid salamanders to identify sex and species. During the breeding season, males are able to produce pheromones from their swollen cloacas. (Wells, 2007)

Food Habits

California tiger salamanders larvae feed on algae, crustaceans, and the larvae of some insects. When larger, California tiger salamanders transitions to eating larger prey, including tadpoles, aquatic insects, and aquatic invertebrates. In some conditions, Ambystoma larvae have exhibited cannibalistic tendencies induced by particular circumstances.

California tiger salamander adults appear to prey on arthropods while underground in burrows. After aestivation, adults prey on terrestrial invertebrates and following breeding, may emerge from their burrows during the night to prey on terrestrial invertebrates on the ground surface. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • algae


Aside from living in burrows, the anti-predator adaptations of Ambystoma californiense are currently unknown. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)

Ecosystem Roles

California tiger salamanders rely heavily on Spermophilus beecheyi, a pest, for survival. These have ecological implications since conservation of California tiger salamanders would mean taking necessary precautions in controlling Spermophilus beecheyi without negatively impacting California tiger salamanders numbers.

California tiger salamanders prey on many arthropod species and help balance the invertebrate populations. Additionally, small birds, mammals, and turtles eat California tiger salamanders. (Salmon and Gorenzel, 2014)

Mutualist Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), a related species, have been sold to fish markets as fish bait. (Johnson, et al., 2011)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

California tiger salamanders endangered status has lead to some developmental constraints in agricultural and commercial development. Its commensal relationship with Spermophilus beecheyi makes it particularly troublesome in trying to re-establish population levels because Spermophilus beecheyi is considered a pest species. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)

Conservation Status

Ambystoma californiense is listed as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. Its habitat has been under severe destruction to human activity, specifically, in the urbanization and the resurrection of agricultural land. As a result, the burrows where adult California tiger salamanders live have been directly affected due to urbanization, killing salamanders, or at least trapping them underground. (Barry and Shaffer, 1994)


Kevin Mesina (author), The College of New Jersey, Matthew Wund (editor), The College of New Jersey, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


particles of organic material from dead and decomposing organisms. Detritus is the result of the activity of decomposers (organisms that decompose organic material).


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


offspring are all produced in a single group (litter, clutch, etc.), after which the parent usually dies. Semelparous organisms often only live through a single season/year (or other periodic change in conditions) but may live for many seasons. In both cases reproduction occurs as a single investment of energy in offspring, with no future chance for investment in reproduction.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


The term is used in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Endangered (E), Vulnerable (V), Rare (R), Indeterminate (I), or Insufficiently Known (K) and in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), or Vulnerable (VU).

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


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Holland, D., M. Hayes, E. McMillan. 1990. Late Summer Movement and Mass Mortality in the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense). The Southwestern Naturalist, 35/2: 217-220.

Howard, R., R. Moorman, H. Whiteman. 1997. Differential effects of mate competition and mate choice on eastern tiger salamanders. Animal Behavior, 53: 1345-1356.

Joao, P. 2015. "AnAge: The Animal Age and Longevity Database" (On-line). Accessed November 13, 2015 at

Johnson, J., R. Thomson, S. Micheletti, B. Shaffer. 2011. The origin of tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) populations in California, Oregon, and Nevada: introductions or relicts?. Conservation of Genetics, 12: 355-370.

Lannoo, M. 2005. Amphibian Declines The Conservation Status of United States Species. Berkeley, California: The Regents of University of California. Accessed November 13, 2015 at

Loredo, I., D. Van Vuren, M. Morrison. 1996. Habitat Use and Migration Behavior of the California Tiger Salamander. Journal of Herpetology, 30/2: 282-285.

Nafis, G. 2015. "A Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of California" (On-line). Accessed November 13, 2015 at

Salmon, T., W. Gorenzel. 2014. "University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program" (On-line). Accessed November 13, 2015 at

Trenham, P., B. Shaffer, W. Koenig, M. Stromberg. 2000. Life History and Demographic Variation in the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense). Copeia, 2: 365-377.

Wells, K. 2007. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: The University Chicago Press.

Williams, R., A. DeWoody. 2009. Reproductive Success and Sexual Selection in Wild Eastern Tiger Salamanders (Ambyostoma t. tigrinum). Evolutionary Biology, 36: 201-213.