This salamander is relatively large (85-185 mm total length), usually with 16 costal grooves. The dorsal ground color is slate gray to bluish black, with a gray belly. In three of the four population isolates, this species has a black body with bright red coloration on the dorsal surfaces of the legs. In the Unicoi Mountains it rarely has red coloration on the legs, but has lateral white spotting (Weisrock et al. 1995). Sexually active males have obvious, rounded mental glands (Petranka 1998). Young juveniles may have paired red spots running along the back (Wood 1947).
Distribution and Habitat
Plethodon shermani occurs in four disjunct, high-elevation populations in the Unicoi and Nantahala mountains, within the southern Appalachians (Weisrock et al. 2005). The range lies primarily in North Carolina (Lannoo 2005), but also extends just into northern Georgia (Graham et al. 2007), and barely into southeastern Tennessee, where a P. shermani-P. aureolus hybrid population occurs on Sassafras Ridge (Weisrock et al. 2005). This species was formerly treated as P. jordani, and the populations now considered P. shermani represent the Standing Indian, Wayah, Tusquitee, and Unicoi Mountain isolates of the P. jordani complex (Highton and Peabody 2000). It is found in mountainous, cool, mesic forests (Petranka 1998) from 853-1,494 m above sea level (Highton and Peabody 2000).
Life History, Abundance, Activity, and Special Behaviors
This species shelters under logs or rocks by day, and forages on the forest floor at night (Petranka 1998).
Courtship for salamanders in the P. jordani complex has been observed in the field from mid-July through early October (e.g., Arnold 1976; Hairston 1983, Organ 1958). Females have a biennial reproductive cycle and mate every other year (Arnold 1976). Nests have not been found, indicating that gravid females likely oviposit deep underground (Petranka 1998). Oviposition probably takes place around May, judging from the presence/absence of gravid females in collection samples (Hairston 1983) and hatching is likely to occur in the late summer or early autumn, 2-3 months after egg deposition (Petranka 1998).
Feeding trials have shown that Red-legged Salamanders have slimy tails which are unpalatable to potential avian predators (Brodie and Howard 1973; Hensel and Brodie 1976; Huheey 1960). The red coloration may thus be aposematic (Petranka 1998, under comments in P. jordani account). However, Petranka (1998) points out that experimental work has not yet shown strong support for this hypothesis (Hensel and Brodie 1976; Labanick and Brandon 1981). The sympatric species Desmognathus ocoee has red-legged (as well as yellow and orange-legged) morphs, but is palatable to predators, and may possibly be mimicking P. shermani (Petranka 1998; Labanick and Brandon 1981).
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