Long-toed salamanders are fairly small amphibians found in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. These salamanders are rarely seen as they spend most of their time in burrows underground, often only surfacing at night to forage for food. But are long-toed salamanders poisonous?
Long-toed salamanders produce a sticky secretion from glands on their tails, to ward off predators. This secretion is also mildly toxic and can be irritating when ingested by humans (or pets), but is not lethal.
Normally, long-toed salamanders are harmless creatures. The only danger comes when their toxins are ingested. As a safety precaution, thoroughly wash your hands after handling any amphibians. Do not rub your eyes or put anything in your mouth before washing your hands.
With these simple precautions, long-toed salamanders can be completely harmless, even with their toxin.
Why Long-toed Salamanders Have a Toxin
Long-toed salamanders get their name from the fourth toe on the hind legs, which is noticeably longer than the other toes.
However, an easier way you can identify them is by their bulging eyes and dark grey-black skin with a greenish-yellow or sometimes tan stripe running down their backs.
This stripe is not always straight, it is sometimes broken up and even split into individual spots.
Since these salamanders are very secretive, the most likely time you would spot one is during the breeding season when they come out of hibernation to mate and lay their eggs.
When they are in the open, long-toed salamanders are very slow-moving creatures. This means they are at risk of being eaten by gator snakes, bullfrogs, and a variety of other predators. They need a way to defend themselves from all these animals that could eat them.
When approached by a predator, these salamanders will waive their tail and secrete a sticky white toxic secretion that makes them foul-tasting to the would-be predator.
They may also detach and drop part of the tail as a distraction. While the predator is focused on the wail wiggling on the ground, the salamander can slip away unnoticed. The salamander is not harmed by this, and the tail grows back in a few weeks with no problems.
Coloration Warns That Long-toed Salamanders Are Poisonous
In nature, many animals advertise the fact that they are toxic by having bright or contrasting colors. This coloration is called “aposematism” or “warning coloration”.
It is used by many animals to signal to potential predators that they are poisonous or distasteful and would make a horrible meal.
In the case of long-toed salamanders, the greenish-yellow stripe against a dark-colored skin tells potential predators that the salamander has a toxin and will taste bad if eaten.
A praetor that eats one of these salamanders may get sick and remember the experience. The next time that predator sees another long-toed salamander, it will associate its coloration with danger and avoid it.
Long-toed Salamanders Are Only Mildly Poisonous
However, since the toxin is only mild, long-toed salamanders are still preyed on by a variety of predators, most notably, garter snakes.
Poisonous Does Not Mean Venomous
If you are like most people, you use the words “poisonous” and “venomous”, almost interchangeably. But you should know that there are significant differences between these two terms.
- Venomous animals inject their venom in their toxin, usually through barbs, fangs, stingers, or claws (think rattlesnakes).
- Poisonous animals on the other hand don’t directly deliver on inject their toxins. They may hold them in their tissues, or secrete them on their skin. These toxins are then absorbed by animals that come in contact with them (think poison dart frogs).
Long-toed salamanders secrete a toxin on their skin but cannot inject this toxin. This means they are poisonous but not venomous.
Are Long-toed Salamanders Dangerous to Humans?
Long-toed salamanders typically aren’t a danger to humans. The toxin they secrete is only harmful when ingested, so as long as you do not lick or put the salamander in your mouth, you should be safe.
Since most people won’t try to lick a long-toed salamander, the most likely way you would ingest the toxin would be by handling a long-toed salamander, then rubbing your eyes, or touching your mouth without first washing your hands.
Doing this would enable the toxins to be absorbed by your mucous membranes and may lead to irritation. If you ingest the toxins through your eyes, you may get a painful sting and it may even lead to swelling. However, in most cases, it will subside with time.
Salamanders Can Carry Bacteria and Parasites
Most amphibians, including long-toed salamanders, can carry several parasites and bacteria that can make humans fall sick. One important bacteria is called Salmonella.
Salamanders can carry salmonella bacteria in their intestines and pass it off in their waste. The bacteria usually do not cause any illness in the salamander. But it can cause an infection in people who come in contact with the salamander, its waste, or anything the salamander touches.
People exposed to salmonella can develop an infection called salmonellosis which generally affects the intestines but can spread to the bloodstream and lead to severe, sometimes even fatal illness.
For this reason, it is not a good idea to frequently handle salamanders or any other amphibians. When you do, practice good hygiene and remember to wash your hands after.
Are Long-toed Salamanders Dangerous to Dogs, Cats, or Other Pets?
Since long-toed salamanders only possess a mild toxin, it is unlikely they will be a real danger to dogs, cats, or other household pets. However, the toxin can be irritating when ingested by a pet.
A dog that ingests this toxin may droll, slobber, or spit but usually nothing more than that.
Also, dogs and other pets can be exposed to salmonella through contact with salamanders, much like humans. A dog exposed to can develop an infection and fall sick.
In addition to salmonella, salamanders can carry parasites such as tapeworms and flukes. This means a dog that eats a long-toed salamander may also consume the parasites and develop a parasitic infection.
For this reason, it is a good idea to keep your pet away from all salamanders. If you have any captive salamanders at him, keep them safely secured in their enclosure so they do not come in contact with any of your other pets.
Safety Precautions to Take When Handling Salamanders
It is almost never a good idea to handle amphibians. This is because they have a very delicate absorbent skin, that they use to absorb water, oxygen, and other soluble substances.
Oils and salts, that naturally occur on our hands can pass right through the salamanders’ skin and end up inside of its body. Sunblock, repellents, lotions, perfumes, soap, or any other chemicals on your hands can also pass through salamanders skin and cause harm.
For this reason, it is not a good idea to handle amphibians. If you ever want to handle a salamander, make sure your hands are washed off with de-chlorinated water and free from all soap residue or any other substances that could potentially harm the salamander.
After washing your hands, make sure they remain moist so you do not dry out the salamanders’ skin as you handle it.
- As you handle the salamander, do it very gently. Salamanders only release their toxins when they are under stress and feel threatened. Handling a salamander with excessive force will cause it stress and make it release its toxins all over your hands.
- Only handle the salamander for the shortest amount of time possible so you do not dry out its skin or cause it any accidental harm.
After handling the salamander, wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap to get rid of any bacteria (or toxin) you may have picked up. Before washing your hand, do not touch your face or put anything in your mouth.
Long-toed salamanders are unlikely to ever cause you any problems when left alone. When you do handle them, their toxin will not be of any harm as long as you take a few precautions and handle the salamanders correctly.
Be mindful of the salamander too! Handling can cause salamanders to stress unwanted stress. Do not handle any salamanders unless you absolutely have to. Even then, only handle the salamander for the shortest possible amount of time.