I remember cracking open the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest, and seeing the enigma – the Coeur D’Alene Salamander. The range map showed that its distribution included northwest Montana. I had never seen one, or even know they existed for matter. I had seen Long-toed Salamanders before and countless numbers of frogs. I learned that the Coeur D’Alene Salamander existed in mainly the spray zones of waterfalls and cascades. “I have to see this unusual, rare animal,” I thought to myself, or maybe I said it out loud to everyone who would listen. I was hooked, and it took nearly 20 years before I was able to get pictures of this elusive species.
Coeur D’Alene Salamanders (Plethodon idahoensis) are members of the Plethodontidae family, a clade of lungless salamanders. That’s right, they do not have any lungs. Plethodontids respire through their skin, which is what necessitates their living in conditions where the skin can be constantly moist, like the spray zones of waterfalls or seeps. These habitats also tend to possess fractured rock and talus that provide many protected micro-habitats for the small (2-4 inches in length) Coeur D’Alene Salamander. This habitat requirement also tends to make the Coeur D’Alene Salamander rather difficult to observe. In fact, it was not describe to science until 1939 when by James R. Slater and John W. Slipp found them along the south shore of Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho, thus the über-imaginative name.
The most distinguishing characteristic of the Coeur D’Alene Salamander is the bright yellow-gold stripe that runs along the back for the entire length of the body. The tail is relatively short, giving this species a somewhat stubby appearance. The short legs have stubby, webbed toes. They even have teeth (however, small and unnoticed), which seems odd to me for an amphibian.
I knew a bit about Coeur D’Alene Salamanders, but still they had eluded me…that is until recently. I had talked my way into visiting a certain creek near Plains, MT where Coeur D’Alene Salamanders had been documented in the past. I parked at the base of the steep mountainside, and quickly I was bounding through the undergrowth with camera in hand. The sun had just started to wane in its intensity. I felt completely energized as I climbed the rock faces and skirting past the rushing water. After 15 minutes of intense running/climbing, I came across a small waterfall with a significant spray zone and fractured rocks. The rocks were mostly covered with moss and temperature was very crisp and cool. Scanning for a creature that I possessed no search image for, I flipped a promising piece of bark that laid atop a flattened boulder.
And there it was under that bark, a single Coeur D’Alene Salamander. It stayed entirely still as I dropped to talus to obtain a closer view. The camera and attached macro snapped through many images as the object of my intense attention seemed to nearly pose for its publicity shots. After the obligatory documentation images were taken, I spent several moments just marveling at this creature. So frail looking, and yet living a difficult place with such apparent grace.