Salamanders spend most times of the year either curled up under logs and rocks or hibernating, usually in underground burrows. For this reason, they are not frequently encountered. You are most likely to encounter a salamander on a rainy day in spring when they emerge from hibernation and migrate to breeding ponds.
Salamanders have slender bodies, long tails, and short legs (usually four). They look somewhat like a cross between a frog and a lizard but unlike lizards, salamanders do not have scales or claws. Rather, they have smooth permeable skin like frogs, that they keep constantly moist by secreting mucous.
They use this skin to breathe and to absorb water (amphibians do not drink through their mouths as we do). To efficiently breathe, their skin has to always be moist.
For this reason, salamanders are usually found in moist environments where their skin won’t dry out. On cool rainy days, they roam further from their natural habitats and often end up in people’s backyards.
Salamanders Look Different at Various Stages of Their Life Cycle
Most salamanders go through three distinct life stages: Egg, larvae, Adult.
Female salamanders lay eggs in breeding ponds and attach them to pond plants. After a few weeks, tiny larvae will hatch from these eggs. The larvae live entirely in the water, just like frog tadpoles.
With time, the larvae will go through a process known as metamorphosis and transform into the adult salamanders that people are most familiar with.
During these different life stages, salamanders will look very different.
What Salamander Eggs Look Like
As mentioned earlier, most salamanders lay their eggs in breeding ponds and attach them to submerged sticks and other vegetation near the water surface. Multiple salamanders may attach their eggs to the same plants.
Unlike reptile or bird eggs, salamander eggs do not have a hard outer shell. Rather, they have a layer of jelly surrounding the entire egg mass. This jelly protects the eggs from predators and prevents them from drying out if the water level drops.
The jelly is usually clear or cloudy white but can be slightly different colors depending on the salamander species. It can be brown, cream-colored, or even have a bright green glow.
A Few Salamanders Lay Their Eggs on Land
Some salamanders, such as the arboreal and red-backed salamander lay their eggs in moist soil or rotting logs on land rather than in the water. Unlike salamander eggs laid in the water, these eggs do not have a protective jelly. Rather, they have soft egg sacks to protect them from the elements.
The female salamanders will usually remain coiled up around their eggs, to protect them from predators and prevent them from drying out.
What Baby Salamanders Look Like
After a few weeks, the eggs will hatch and tiny larvae will emerge. Baby salamanders also called larvae, have external wing-like gills attached to either side of their heads, just where their necks should have been. They look somewhat like tadpoles and live entirely in the water.
These larvae will stay in the water munching on small worms and other small aquatic invertebrates until they are ready to transform into adult salamanders that live on land.
Adult Salamanders Look Different From the Larvae
After a few months (to as long as several years), the larvae will go through a process known as metamorphosis to transform into the adult salamanders you are more familiar with.
After fully metamorphosing, some salamanders such as the spotted, tiger, and marbled salamander will get out of the water and start to live a mostly terrestrial life.
However other salamanders, such as the axolotl and the mudpuppy will live a fully aquatic life even as adults.
What Adult Terrestrial (Land-Dwelling) Salamanders Look Like
Terrestrial salamanders live mostly on land, usually only returning to the water to breed. During metamorphosis (transforming from baby to adult), larval terrestrial salamanders will develop features for a life on land.
During the process of metamorphosis:
- They lose their gills and many develop lungs for breathing air (some terrestrial salamanders don’t have lungs and breathe entirely through their skin)
- Their tail will thicken and become more rounded
- They develop strong legs for walking on land
Adult terrestrial salamanders have four legs, long tails, and look somewhat like lizards. However, they do not have scales or claws as lizards do. Instead, they have smooth moist skin and fleshy toes.
Most terrestrial salamander species have four toes on their front legs, and five toes on the back legs, but some may have fewer toes.
Their size varies between species ranging from as small as 0.60 inches (arboreal minute salamander), to as large as 13 inches (coastal giant salamander).
Here is what a few terrestrial salamanders look like:
What Tiger Salamanders Look Like
Tiger salamanders range from 6 to 8 inches and are one of the largest terrestrial salamanders in North America.
These salamanders can be easily identified by their dull brown coloration, with brownish-yellow markings. The markings can be large spots, stripes, or irregularly shaped spots depending on the subspecies.
Tiger salamanders are one of the most widely distributed salamanders in North America, spreading from southeastern Alaska to the southern edge of Mexico.
What Spotted Salamanders Look Like
Like the tiger salamander, spotted salamanders are fairly large, ranging from 6 to 9 inches long, with females typically larger than males.
Spotted salamanders get their name from the two roles of yellow or orange spots speckled along their black backs and sides. They have broad heads and stout bodies with vertical grooves on each side of their body.
These salamanders are native to the eastern and south-eastern parts of the United States, and into eastern Canada.
What Marbled Salamanders Look Like
Unlike the tiger the spotted salamander, marbled salamanders are fairly small, only growing 3 to 4.5 inches in length.
These salamanders have black bodies with silvery crossbands running along with their bodies, from the head to the tail. Because of this appearance, they are sometimes called “banded salamanders“.
Male marbled salamanders are typically smaller than females, have whitish crossbands that become very white in the breeding season.
These salamanders are native to much of the eastern United States, all the way to the Carolina coast.
What Fire Salamanders Look Like
Fire salamanders are the largest (reaching between 6 to 11 inches) and best-known salamander species in Europe. These salamanders are very frequently confused for the spotted salamander because they are similarly colored.
However, an easy to differentiate them is; while the spotted salamander has two rows of yellow spots running along their back, fire salamanders have irregularly shaped yellow patches, that are often spread all over their body.
These salamanders live throughout Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe with some subspecies being found as far as North Africa.
What Red Salamanders Look Like
Red salamanders are 6 to 7 inches in length have a bright orangish-red coloration with random black spots on the back and sides. Older red salamanders are typically darker and may have fused spots making them look purplish brown.
These salamanders are found in the eastern United States, from Alabama to northern New York.
What Spring Salamanders Look Like
Spring salamanders are about 4 to 8 inches in length and have an orangish-pink body; covered in faint small black spots or flecks. Sometimes, their coloration can be yellowish-brown with a mottled appearance.
These salamanders have slender bodies, a light line extending from the eyes to the nostril, and a ridge along their tail to help them swim better.
Spring salamanders are found from northeast Mississippi to eastern Canada.
What Long Toed Salamanders Look Like
Long-toed salamanders get their name from the very long fourth toe (second from the outside) on their hind feet. These salamanders are a little on the smaller side, only ranging about 4 to 6 inches in length.
You can easily identify them by their dark greyish-black body with a bright green to yellow stripe running along their back that is reduced to small flecks on the head. They also have whitish specks on their sides and feet.
Long-toed salamanders are the second most widely distributed salamanders in North America, second on to the tiger salamander. They can be found from southeastern Alaska to central California through the Pacific Northwest.
What Red-Backed Salamanders Look Like
Red-backed salamanders have slender bodies and reach between 2 and 5 inches. Despite their name, not all “red-backed ” salamanders have the color red on their backs.
They have many color variations but mainly have two variations: The red-back, and the lead- morph.
The red-back morph has a broad straight stripe from the head, extending to the tip of its tail. The stripe is usually red, but may also be yellow or orange. The lead-back morph, on the other hand, lacks the red stripe. It has a purely grey to black color on its back instead.
These salamanders are found in the eastern parts of the United States, and into Canada.
What Two-Lined Salamanders Look Like
Two-lined salamanders are on the small side, only reaching between 2.5 and 4 inches in length. You can easily identify them by their slender tan to yellowish-brown bodies, and the two black stripes running from their eyes to their tail.
Male two-lined salamanders have small projections from the nostrils that point downwards. These projections are thought to help them in chemoreception.
These salamanders can be found in the eastern United States from Georgia, and into Canada
What Adult Aquatic (Water-Dwelling) Salamanders Look Like
Unlike terrestrial salamanders, aquatic salamanders live entirely in the water, even after transforming into adults. This means they have features that are adapted for life in the water, rather than on land.
Aquatic salamanders have more varied features than terrestrial salamanders. Some aquatic salamanders have 4 legs, but others only have forelegs and lack hind legs. Some have gills, but others do not and largely breathe underwater through their skin.
However, despite their varied features, all aquatic salamanders have flat-paddle like tails which they use to swim in their aquatic environments.
Here’s is what different aquatic salamanders look like:
What Axolotls Look Like
Axolotls are “mole salamanders” very closely related to the spotted and tiger salamander. However, unlike their terrestrial cousins, axolotls never go through metamorphosis, meaning they retain their larval features even as adults.
They have feathery gills protruding from the side of the head, four webbed feet, and a flat fin that runs down the length of their body, just like the larvae. Their coloration is usually a pinkish-whitish color but they sometimes have a brownish coloration.
It is estimated that there are over 1 million captive axolotls kept by humans all over the world, making them one of the most numerous salamanders. However, they are critically endangered and nearly extinct in the wild.
The only place you can find wild axolotls is in a few lakes in Mexico.
What Mudpuppies Look Like
Mudpuppies reach 7 to 16 inches and are one of the few salamanders that are vocal. They get their name from their squeaky scream which sounds somewhat like a dog’s bark.
Like the axolotl, these salamanders retain their larval features even as adults. They have large feathery gills, four feet, and a flat fin that runs down the length of their body.
Mudpuppies that live in cold oxygen-rich water have shorter gills than those living in water with low oxygen content.
Their coloration is usually brownish-black with bluish-black spots or blotches. However, younger mudpuppies are often black with yellow stripes running along the length of their bodies.
Mudpuppies can be found in the eastern United States from northern Georgia to southern Quebec in Canada.
What Anderson’s Salamanders Look Like
The Anderson’s salamander was only discovered in 1984, making it one of the most recently discovered salamander species. This salamander looks extremely similar to the axolotl and it can be difficult to tell them apart.
However, they do have some differences:
- The Anderson’s salamander has more vivid color contrasts than the axolotl
- The Anderson’s salamander has bushier gills than the axolotl
Still, even with these differences, most non-experts will not be able to differentiate these salamanders from the axolotl.
Like their cousins, these salamanders are only found in a few lakes in Mexico.
What Hellbenders Look Like
Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America, reaching up to 29 inches in length. Unlike most other aquatic salamanders, hellbenders do not have gills. Rather, they breathe underwater through their skin.
Their skin has lots of folds and wrinkles which provides a large surface area to absorb oxygen in the water.
Hellbenders can be easily identified by their wide flat heads, paddle-shaped tail, and their brown coloration with irregularly shaped dark spots along their back.
These salamanders are native to the eastern and central united states, from Northern Georgia and to Southern New York.
What Asiatic Giant Salamanders Look Like
These are two separate but very similar salamanders species: The Chinese, and the Japanese giant salamander.
However, for convenience’ sake, I will refer to them as a collective because they look basically the same
Asiatic giant salamanders look very similar to the hellbender. They lack gills, have wide flat heads, paddle-shaped tails, and very wrinkled skin, just like the hellbender.
However, there are some differences:
- Asiatic giant salamanders can grow to a length of almost 6 feet while the hellbenders only grow to about half of that
- Hellbenders usually have a pair of gill opening on each side of their head, while Asiatic salamanders do not
As their name suggests these salamanders are native only to Japan and China.
Sometimes, Normally Terrestrial Salamanders Grow Up to Be Fully Aquatic
Sometimes, normally terrestrial salamanders mature into adults without first going through the process of metamorphosis. This is known as “neoteny” and is most common with mole salamanders such as the tiger salamander.
Neotenic “terrestrial” salamanders keep their external gills, flat fan-like tails, and other larval features. They also live entirely in the water, just like the larvae.
Neoteny usually happens when the salamander larvae are in a pond with lots of food, and a lack of predators making it unnecessary for them to transform into land-dwelling adults.
It can also happen when the larvae are in closed-off bodies of water, where they would be unable to get out of the water if they transformed into land-dwelling adults.
The Weirdest Looking Salamanders
Imagine a blind, snake-like salamander that can go a decade without food, and can live to a hundred years. If you imagined the olm, you are correct!
Olms are blind cave-dwelling salamanders sometimes called the “human-fish” for their pinkish skin. These salamanders are the only cave-dwelling vertebrates in Europe and have unique adaptations for a fully aquatic life in underground caves with very little light.
Since they lack eyes, they can hunt in total darkness by using their superpower sense of smell, taste, and hearing.
These salamanders can live to over 100 years! This makes them the longest-lived salamanders in the world.
Sirens are another strange-looking salamander. These salamanders are so different from other salamander species that they are often excluded from the “salamander group” and placed in their own amphibian group named Trachystomata or Meantes.
Like most other aquatic salamanders, sirens have feathery gills on the sides of their head and have paddle-shaped tails. However, unlike most salamanders, sirens lack hind legs and only have forelegs.
This lack of hind legs makes their bodies more streamlined which makes the extremely excellent swimmers. They flap their long strong tails from side to side, to propel themselves in the water, just like fish
These salamanders are native only to the southeastern United States and northern Mexico.
Amphiumas are often called “Congo eels”, or “Congo snakes” due to their long bodies and very tiny vestigial legs. However, these names are incorrect because amphiumas are salamanders, just like the Olm and the Siren.
Amphiumas have a brownish-black coloration and range 18 to 46 inches in length, which makes them one of the largest salamanders.
They are native only to the southeastern part of the United States and share much of their range with sirens.
There are lots of salamander species that all look somewhat different from each other. However, most salamanders do share a few common features.
Terrestrial salamanders always have 4 legs, smooth skin, and a lizard-like body. Aquatic salamanders, on the other hand, tend to have more varied forms.
Some have gills while others do not. Also, some have well-developed legs, while others (like the siren) only have tiny vestigial legs or have no legs at all.
Now you know how to easily recognize a salamander the next time you see one!
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