Red salamanders are strikingly beautiful amphibians found in the eastern united states. These salamanders are bright red and have extensive black spotting on the back and sides, hence their name. But are red salamanders poisonous?
Red salamanders produce a milky secretion that makes them foul-tasting to predators. This secretion is mildly poisonous and may be irritating when ingested by a human, but is not lethally toxic. It only has the effect of making the salamander taste bad to any animal that tries to eat it.
The only real threat red salamanders pose to humans is that they can be carriers of salmonella, which can be transmitted to humans if sufficient hygiene is not practiced.
As a safety precaution, wash your hands after handling amphibians. Before washing your hands, do not touch your face or put anything in your mouth.
Red Salamanders Are Only Mildly Poisonous
The secretion also has the extra benefit of making the salamander a little bit slippery, making it harder for predators to get a firm grip.
A Bright Red-Orange Coloration Warns Predators of the Red Salamanders Toxin
In nature, many animals advertise their toxicity by having bright or contrasting colors. This is called ‘aposematism‘ or ‘warning coloration’. Think of it like holding up a sign that says “don’t eat me I’m poisonous!”
An animal that eats a poisonous brightly colored animal may get sick and remember the experience. The next time that animal sees a similarly colored animal, it will associate the coloration with danger, and avoid eating it. No one wants to eat anything that could make them sick, or kill them.
In the case of red salamanders, their bright red-orange color tells potential predators they have a toxic defense.
However, since red salamanders are not very toxic, scientists have theorized that their coloration developed to partially imitate the coloration of the highly toxic red-eft stage of the Eastern Newt.
Some predators may have difficulty distinguishing the red salamander from its more toxic look-alike and avoid them together.
Red Salamanders are Poisonous…….but do not have any venom
You have probably heard the words poisonous and venomous used interchangeably. However, there is a big difference between the two.
- Venom is injected into a wound.
- Poison is inhaled or absorbed into the body.
A simple way of looking at it is: if an animal has to sting or bite you to inject its toxin, it is venomous, (for example, rattlesnakes). If you absorb the toxin by eating it, breathing it in, or rubbing it on your skin, the animal is poisonous, (for example, poison dart frogs).
Since red salamanders do not have any ability to inject their toxic secretion, they are poisonous but are not venomous.
Poisonous animals tend to be pretty passive. They only use their toxins to defend themselves when another animal touches or tries to eat them.
Red Salamanders Are Usually Harmless to Humans
Since most people won’t try to eat a red salamander, the most likely way you would be harmed would be by handling a red salamander with your bare hands, then rubbing your eyes, nose, or mouth without first washing your hands.
Doing this would enable the toxins to be absorbed by your mucus membranes and likely lead to irritation. If the toxin comes in contact with your eyes, you may get a painful sting, similar to the feeling you get when chili gets in your eye.
However, this usually subsides with time, so you probably won’t have to rush to your local emergency room.
All Salamanders Can Carry Salmonella
The other concern for red salamanders is, like many amphibians, they can carry salmonella and other germs that are harmful to humans. Salamanders can carry salmonella in their intestines, and pass it off in their waste.
The bacteria do not cause any illness in the salamander, so a salamander carrying salmonella bacteria may look very healthy, but can pass the bacteria off to humans.
Humans can be exposed to salmonella through contact with the salamander, its waste, or anything that the salamander touches.
Exposure to Salmonella can lead to an infection called ‘Salmonellosis‘, which is characterized by diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.
For this reason, you should never handle salamanders or any other amphibians unless you absolutely have to. When you do handle amphibians, practice good hygiene and wash your hands after.
Are Red Salamanders Dangerous to Dogs, Cats, or Other Pets?
Since red salamanders secrete a toxin, a dog, cat, or any other pet that bites or mouths a red salamander would get a mouthful of foul-tasting toxin and most likely let go. No animal wants to eat a horrible tasting animal.
If a dog ingests enough of this toxin, it may droll, slobber or spit, but usually nothing more. However, a dog that eats a red salamander will ingest a sufficient quantity of toxins and may fall sick or vomit.
In addition, salamanders can carry tapeworms and other parasites, so a dog that eats a red salamander is not only at risk of poisoning, but may also be exposed to parasites.
For this reason, do not let your pets get close to red salamanders, or any amphibians for that matter. If you have pet salamanders at home, make sure they do not come in contact with any of your other pets.
How to Safely Handle a Red Salamander
As amphibians, salamanders have permeable skin much more sensitive than our skin. They use this skin to absorb moisture and oxygen from their environments.
Their skin does not just absorb oxygen and moisture though, anything that comes in contact with the skin can be absorbed; including perfumes, lotions, and other chemicals on your hands.
This means handling a salamander with dirty hands can harm and even potentially kill the salamander if the chemicals on your hands make their way into its body.
For this reason, you should never handle amphibians unless you really have to. If you do handle a red salamander, take the following safety precautions.
- Wash your hands very thoroughly, with dechlorinated water.
- Rinse your hands, and make sure they are very clean and free of all soap residue and other chemicals that could harm the salamander.
After washing your hands, make sure they remain moist so you do not dry out the salamander’s skin as you handle it.
How to safely handle
- Very gently pick the salamander up with your hands.
- Allow the salamander to walk on your hands without restraining or putting any pressure on it.
- Only handle the salamander for a short period. Red salamanders breathe through their skin, so handling the salamander for too long can dry out its skin, causing it to suffocate.
- Very put the salamander down
What to do after Handling
- Wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap
As mentioned before, salamanders can carry harmful germs (and toxins) so disinfect yourself for your safety. Before washing your hands, do not touch your face or put anything in your mouth
Red salamanders are beautiful amphibians that are unlikely to ever cause you any problems. Since they secrete a toxin (and carry salmonella), you shouldn’t touch them. If you ever need to handle a red salamander, simply wearing gloves and practicing basic hygiene should keep you out of harm’s way.