When most people see their first salamander, they call it a lizard. However, on closer examination, most notice that these creatures are nothing like Lizards. They have smooth, moist skin, much like frogs. This is because salamanders are amphibians closer to frogs than they are to lizards.
Like most amphibians, salamanders produce poisonous secretions as a defense against predators. The toxins produced by some species are more poisonous than those produced by others. However, these toxins are only harmful when ingested, so you are unlikely to be harmed provided you do not eat or lick a salamander.
Even with their toxins, salamanders are relatively harmless provided they are handled with caution. To be safe, do not handle salamanders unless necessary. If you do, be very careful and wash your hands after.
With these simple precautions, salamanders can be harmless.
Why Salamanders Developed A Toxic Defense
As small, slow-moving creatures, salamanders make the perfect prey for many animals such as owls, weasels, raccoons, and snakes. This means they need a way to fend off all these hungry predators trying to eat them.
The first line of defense of most salamanders depend on is their coloration, which helps them blend into their environment, escaping the notice of potential predators.
Some salamanders are also fairly quick and will dash to cover when they are threatened. Once in cover, their coloration makes them harder for the predator to find.
As a secondary defense, salamanders produce toxins in their parotoid or granular glands. When approached by a predator, they will secrete these toxins all over their skin, making them foul-tasting or sometimes even lethal to most predators.
Sometimes they will also position themselves in a way that ensures that their main poison glands are directly facing the attacker.
Most Salamanders Only Secrete a Mild Toxin
Most salamanders only produce mildly poisonous secretions that have no serious effect apart from making them foul-tasting to predators. When ingested by humans, these secretions may cause some irritation or discomfort, but usually nothing more serious than that.
However, some salamanders, such as the fire salamander and several species of newt have very potent toxins that can be lethal to predators (or humans) unfortunate enough to ingest them in large quantities.
Some Salamanders Advertise Their Toxicity With Bright Colors
While some salamanders have a coloration that helps them blend into their environment, others go out of their way to advertise themselves with bright or contrasting colors that make them very visible.
This is called ‘aposematic’ or ‘warning coloration’. Many animals use it as a signal to tell predators that they are toxic and would make a horrible meal (think poison dart frogs).
A predator that eats a brightly colored salamander may get very sick and remember the experience.
The next time that predator sees another brightly colored salamander, it will associate the coloration with danger and avoid eating it. In this way, the bright coloration, rather than camouflage acts as a defense in itself.
Poisonous Does Not Mean Venomous
If you are like most people, you often use the words ‘poisonous’ and ‘venomous’ interchangeably. However, you should know that there are major differences between the two.
- The first difference lies in the way the toxin is delivered. Venom is injected usually through stings, fangs, or barbs (eg. rattlesnakes, scorpions). Poison on the other hand is delivered much more passively and has to be absorbed/ingested into your body. It can be ingested through your mouth, inhaled, or absorbed through your skin (eg. Cane toads).
- The second difference is what the toxin is used for. Venom is usually used by predators to hunt. Poison, on the other hand, is used by animals trying to stop other animals from eating them.
Poisonous animals (such as salamanders) are usually not aggressive and would rather flee than attack. They only use their toxins as a defense.
Some Salamanders Are Venomous
Salamanders are often informally divided into two subgroups: “true salamanders” and “newts. (link to Newts Vs Salamanders)
While “true salamanders” are only poisonous without any ability to inject their toxin, some species of newt, such as the Spanish ribbed newt, can actively inject their toxin. This means they are technically venomous.
When threatened, these newts will push their sharp ribs through tubercles running down the sides of their body. At the same time, the newt will secrete a milky toxin from its granular glands, which coat the sharp tip of the rib in toxin. The toxin-coated ribs then ‘sting’ the attacker.
Since these newts actively inject their toxin, they can be considered venomous (remember the difference between Poisonous and Venomous).
Salamanders Typically Aren’t a Danger to Humans
Most people harmed by salamanders are those who handle them with their bare hands, then rub their eyes or put their fingers in their mouth without first washing their hands.
Doing this enables the toxins to come in contact with the mucous membranes in the eyes or mouth; leading to irritation or discomfort, but usually nothing more.
However, some salamanders, such as the rough-skinned newt, have a very potent toxin, which can certainly be lethal to humans if ingested in sufficient quantities.
Fortunately, merely touching a rough-skinned newt will not kill you, you would have to eat or lick one to get a lethal dose of its toxin.
What Salamanders Are the Most Toxic?
The toxicity of salamanders varies widely between species. Some salamanders such as the rough-skinned newt are so poisonous a single adult newt has enough toxin to kill 25,000 mice.
On the other extreme are the salamanders such as the red-backed salamander, with extremely mild toxins that have no noticeable effect on most predators.
Here is a chart of 16 different salamander species, and their degree of toxicity.
|Type of Salamander||Degree of Toxicity|
|Rough-skinned Newt||Extremely Poisonous|
|Red-bellied Newt||Extremely Poisonous|
|Sierra Newt||Extremely Poisonous|
|California Newt||Extremely Poisonous|
|Red-spotted Newt||Highly Poisonous in juvenile (red-eft) phase, and mildly poisonous as adults.|
|Fire-Belly Newt||Highly poisonous|
|Fire Salamander||Highly Poisonous|
|Tiger Salamander||Mildly Poisonous|
|Spotted Salamander||Mildly Poisonous|
|Red Salamander||Mildly Poisonous|
|Mud Salamander||Mildly Poisonous|
|Marbled Salamander||Mildly Poisonous|
|Slimy Salamander||Mildly Poisonous|
|Long-tailed Salamander||Very Mildly Poisonous|
|Long-toed Salamander||Very Mildly Poisonous|
|Red-backed Salamander||Very Mildly Poisonous|
Toxins Are Not the Only Thing You Should Worry About
Most, if not all amphibians can carry parasites and bacteria such as salmonella that can make people sick. One important bacteria is salmonella. Salamanders can carry salmonella bacteria in their intestines and excrete them in their waste.
A salamander carrying salmonella may look very clean and healthy but can pass the bacteria on to humans. You can be exposed to salmonella if you touch objects that have come in contact with the salamander or its waste, and then stick your fingers in your mouth; enabling the bacteria to get into your body.
Exposure to salmonella can cause an infection called salmonellosis in humans which is characterized by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and sometimes vomiting.
Most salmonella infections are only mild, but the infection can spread to the bloodstream or even the nervous system and cause serious, sometimes fatal illnesses.
Fortunately, you will not catch a salmonella infection from simply touching or holding a salamander. The bacteria have to get into your body to cause any harm.
Are Salamanders Dangerous to Cats, Dogs, or Other Pets?
Since most salamanders possess a toxin, a dog or cat that licks, bites, or eats a salamander is potentially at risk of poisoning
Most salamanders only produce a mild toxin, so they will not be a danger to dogs or other pets. However, some salamanders; such as the fire salamander, and rough-skinned newt produce highly potent toxins that can be lethal when ingested by a dog.
Salamanders Can Carry Parasites
Salamanders often carry tapeworms and other parasites, so a dog that eats a salamander is not only at risk of poisoning but may also develop a parasitic infection. The parasites usually do not harm the salamander, but be passed off to other animals which eat the salamander.
For this reason, you should keep you keep your pets away from salamanders or any other amphibians.
If you have pet salamanders at home, keep them safely secured in the enclosure so they do not come in contact with any of your other pets.
Safety Precautions When Handling Salamanders
Generally, it’s not a good idea to handle amphibians. This is because they have very sensitive, absorbent skin. Salts, oils, and chemicals on your hands can penetrate their skin end up inside of their body.
This means handling a salamander with unclean hands, can harm the salamander. For this reason, you should keep your salamander handling to a minimum.
If you ever have to handle a salamander, take the following precautions to protect both you and the animal.
- Make sure your hands are very clean. Not just clean from dirt, but washed off so thoroughly that no residue of soap or any other substances remain on your hands.
- After washing your hands, dry them then re-moisten with dechlorinated water.
- As you handle the salamander, do it very gently and do not cause it any stress. Salamanders only secrete toxins to defend themselves when they feel threatened, so stressing a salamander will make it secret its toxins all over your hands.
- Keep the salamander away from your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Very thoroughly wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap. Remember, salamanders secrete toxins and may carry salmonella so you best protect yourself! Before washing your hands, do not touch your face, rub your eyes, or put anything in your mouth.
Frequently asked questions:
Question: Do Salamanders Bite?
Answer: Salamanders do bite, but this is not to say they will bite everything. A salamander will only bite during aggressive feeding when it mistakes your finger for food, or when it is being handled in a way that makes it uncomfortable.
A bite from a salamander is not something to be too worried about as its tiny teeth are very unlikely to penetrate your skin.
Check out this post for more information on the topic.
Question: Does Touching a Salamander Kill it?
Answer: As mentioned earlier, salamanders have permeable skins and can be harmed by substances on your hands. Sometimes, this “harm” results in infections that can be fatal for the salamander. So, touching a salamander with harmful substances on your hands can indeed kill it.
Salamanders are very shy creatures that are harmless when left alone. Since most salamanders secrete a toxin, you shouldn’t touch them! If you ever handle a salamander, simply wearing gloves can dramatically reduce the risk of poisoning.
Respect the salamander too! Salamanders do not like being handled by anything bigger than them, so do not handle salamanders unless you have to. This is for will keep both you and the animal safe.