The only salamander that shares Columbia County’s namesake, the Columbia Torrent salamander, had never been officially recorded in the county and that just didn’t seem right.
These “Torrents” were one of the first salamanders I ever searched for as their habitat niche is in the spray zones of the waterfalls I love. Years ago the Torrent Salamander family was broken into four species based on their range: the Olympic Torrent representing the Olympic Peninsula, the Cascade Torrent living in the Washington and Oregon Cascades, the Southern Torrent along the Coast Range from central Oregon down to California, and the Columbia Torrent in the corners of northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. Columbia Torrents were recorded in Oregon from Yamhill County to Clatsop County and north to Pacific County in Washington, but strangely had never been documented from Columbia County itself.
I was able to find Torrents throughout western Oregon but neither Jon nor I could find them locally. Search efforts at Beaver Creek Falls, Bonnie Falls, and Jack Falls resulted in failure and our passion to find a Torrent in our county turned to frustration. Our inability to find a “waterfall” salamander in our local waterfalls led us to stop trying for several years.
At the beginning of 2019 Jon and I started our research project for reptiles and amphibians in Columbia County and with it a renewed vigor for finding unseen herps in our area. Fortunately in the years since our previous searches I had identified additional habitat niches that Torrents occupy. I set out to search the headwaters of small streams and look through mossy seeps in the steepest forested slopes of the county. One nice steep older forested hill in the Nehalem Divide area became my first target.
I dropped down into a brushy ravine dense with salal and vine maple, sword fern and devil’s club. Navigation was difficult. Through the vegetation I found my way to the slow trickle of a pristine mountain stream. A key to torrent habitat is a substrate consisting of quarter sized cobble rock and this stream had just that.
I explored the promising habitat to no avail and the disheartening darkness that clouded previous Torrent searches set in. I was about to hike out when one small rock flip revealed the first Columbia Torrent Salamander of Columbia County! It was a small larval torrent, goofy with its round head and big eyes, and it quickly got away…but not before the camera clicked and the sali was documented.
The new find was published as a note in Herpetological Review. With a re-energized motivation we have now been able to find Columbia Torrents at four more Columbia County locations. None were found in waterfall spray zones…yet.
Columbia Torrent Salamanders are small yellow-to-brown salamanders with a bit of speckling. Their large eyes and stubby legs and toes give them a distinct appearance. As they require highly oxygenated water to breathe effectively through their skin, they require clean cold water conditions where air and water mix, such as splash zones and seeps. Anything that muddies or warms the water (including mining, road construction, and deforestation) puts their survival at risk.