When you first see a salamander, you might mistake it for a lizard, but these guys are not reptiles. They are amphibians like frogs and toads. They have long bodies with very smooth skin, and species may have only 2 legs while others have all four. In the say way, the number of toes varies from none to four among species. Some have lungs and others have gills (Figure 1).
Some have neither but breathe through their skin. Incredible! In total there are about 600 species known to science1 and more are discovered all the time. The smallest species known is only 0.6 inches (Thorius arboreus) (Figure 2A) and the largest (Japanese Giant Salamander) can reach a whopping 6 feet and 140 pounds1 (Figure 2B). It may surprise you to learn that the Southern Appalachian Mountains have the greatest salamander diversity anywhere in the world2.
Just as salamander species have different body forms, they also eat different things based on their size and habitat. Some eat earthworms and invertebrates, and some eat snails, crustaceans, or fish; even other salamanders1. They also have varying breeding cycles and patterns. Some lay their eggs in water while others lay them on land. Some will spend their entire life on land, but lay eggs in water, and some will stay in the water all their life like the Hellbender (one of my favorites) (Figure 3).
Some species hatch into miniature salamanders and bypass the larval stage, while others, like the Mudpuppy (Figure 1), never seem to totally lose larval features. Some species will lay eggs and leave, while others guard and care for their eggs3. If eggs are laid in the water, they will hatch into small larval babies that look like frog tadpoles with frilly gills (Figure 4).
Our native salamanders have great diversity. The Lesser Siren is one that you might not expect. It is strictly aquatic and has external gills and no back legs. (Figure 5A). The Hellbender is another aquatic species that can only be found in the U.S. and Asia and can reach 20 inches long (Figure 3). The Jefferson salamander (Figure 5B) and Silvery salamander (Figure 5C) are threatened, terrestrial species that spend most of their lives underground; only coming out to breed in ponds and wetlands. The Long-tailed salamander (Figure 5D) is a member of a family of salamanders (Plethodontidae) that are lungless and terrestrial. It can be found along swift, wooded streams or cave springs. Out of the 20 species found in Illinois, 6 are considered endangered or threatened4. Check out this resource to see the beautiful diversity of our native salamanders.
There are pretty interesting myths that have surrounded salamanders over the centuries. One of the most universal is the connection between salamanders and fire. They are often described as being born of fire or being fire starters. Salamanders were also once thought to consume fire, be rejuvenated by fire, or be elemental-fire itself. This myth is most likely attributed to salamanders’ tendencies to live in rotting logs. When these were put on fires, the salamanders would run out to escape the flames. Salamanders were often grouped with lizards into categories that included dragons and basilisks. In some folklore they were considered soulless creatures like giants and elves. Other stories claim they could poison water wells and fruit trees5.
These lovely critters are nowhere near the beasts of legend but are a diverse group and animals that face many threats in today’s world including habitat destruction, water pollution, pesticides, climate change, and the animal trade. If you find these little guys as fascinating and wonderful as I do and want to protect them, there are some simple steps you can take. For helpful tips, see how you can help.
If you find a salamander and want to know the species, leave it where you found it. Please do not remove it from the wild. Enjoy it in its natural home and do not handle it. Chemicals from bug spray, sunscreen, and lotions can be toxic and absorbed through their skin. Take a picture and head to the Discover Life website for identification assistance.
See you again May 6 for a conversation about wetlands and their role in your life.