About Salamanders

spotted salamander © Suzanne Niles
spotted salamander © Suzanne Niles

Salamanders are secretive, so much so that most people never encounter them. But because of their sensitive skin and specific habitat requirements, these shy creatures can tell us a lot about the health of our environment. Two salamander species are listed as Special Concern in Massachusetts under the state’s endangered species act, and one is listed as Threatened.

Identification

Because of their slender bodies and long tails, salamanders look somewhat like lizards, and people often confuse the two. But lizards are reptiles, whereas salamanders are amphibians (as are frogs and toads). Lizards have scales and claws; salamanders do not. Lizards typically have dry skin; most salamanders stay moist, and many of them use their wet skin as a surface through which to breathe.

All salamanders belong to the amphibian order Caudata, from the Latin word for “tailed”. Newts and mudpuppies are types of salamanders. Learn more about Massachusetts salamander species

Behavior

Unlike frogs, salamanders are rarely vocal. Instead, they communicate using touch and chemicals.

To avoid predators, they may exude bad-tasting substances. Some advertise their poisonous nature with bright colors. For example, hikers often encounter apparently defenseless orange salamanders walking on the forest floor. These are eastern newts in their juvenile red eft stage, and they are extremely poisonous to eat.

Life Cycle

Spotted salamander egg mass

There’s a great deal of variety in salamander life cycles. They live and breed in various types of water bodies or on the forest floor, and their life cycles may encompass more than one of these habitats. Several Massachusetts salamander species migrate from their overwintering spots in wooded upland areas to breed in vernal pools. These temporary ponds are created by spring rains and snow melts and will dry up by mid-summer, which makes them inhospitable to predators such as fish. Learn more about vernal pools­

In most species, breeding involves the male placing a sperm packet called a spermatophore on the ground or on detritus in a pool. The female inserts it into her cloaca to fertilize her eggs, which she may attach to sticks and leaves or under rocks. Some species guard their eggs from predators until they hatch.

Many young salamanders go through an aquatic tadpole stage in which they have visible feathery gills. When they become adults, they may lose gills and gain eyelids and a tongue, as well as the ability to walk on land.

Food

Salamanders eat many small animals, from insects to spiders to worms. They consume several creatures that people consider pests, such as slugs, mosquito larvae, and flies. They will also sometimes eat other salamanders.

Salamander Situations & Solutions

Amphibians all around the world are in trouble. Three of the 11 salamander species in Massachusetts are listed under the state’s endangered species act. Many salamanders perish when they cross roads to reach their breeding pools, and loss of habitat is another major threat. Learn More