Salamanders are so secretive 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.
All salamanders belong to the amphibian order Caudata, from the Latin word for "tailed." Newts and mudpuppies are also types of salamanders.
Because of their slender bodies and long tails, salamanders look somewhat like lizards so people often confuse the two. But lizards are reptiles, whereas salamanders are amphibians like 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.
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 stage (known as Red Efts), and they're extremely poisonous to eat.
Salamanders eat many small animals, from insects to spiders to worms. They consume several creatures that people consider pests including slugs, mosquito larvae, and flies. They will also sometimes eat other salamanders.
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 during a phenomenon known as "Big Night". Vernal pools are temporary ponds created by spring rains and snow melts. They dry up by mid-summer, which makes them inhospitable to predators such as fish. Learn more about vernal pools >
In most salamander species, breeding involves the male placing a sperm packet called a spermatophore on the ground or on debris 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.
Amphibians all around the world are in trouble. Of the 11 salamander species in the state, three are listed under the MA Endangered Species Act. They face several dangers throughout their lives, and many salamanders perish when they cross roads to reach their breeding pools. Loss of habitat is another major threat.