The salamander is not a singular species, but a family of amphibians (animals that can live on land and water). This family includes true salamanders, newts, and some fun names like hellbenders and mud puppies. They all have tails, stumpy bodies, and generally slimy skin. Some of them are plain, some are brightly coloured, but all of them are wonderfully bizarre creatures.
Unlike lizards, the salamander actually has a larval stage not unlike fish and bugs. These larval forms have gills and teeth, but no eyelids. Some species of salamander keep these traits throughout their lives, like mudpuppies and axolotls. They come in many different sizes, with the smallest being 6 inches long, and the Japanese giant salamander is the largest at 6 feet from head to tail.
Some salamanders use their skin as camouflage to hide from predators, while others boast impressively bright colours as a warning to other animals. These vibrant hues in nature are often bluffs to seem like a creature is poisonous, but for some salamanders, it’s not a lie. These species have special glands that emit toxic fluid. Salamanders can also regrow their tail if they lose it.
In fact, scientists are studying limb regeneration in salamanders to learn how we can apply it to humans! Axolotls have been genetically engineered so that their cells are fluorescent and cell division can be tracked.
The salamander lives on a carnivorous diet of insects, worms, snails, small lizards, and even other salamanders. They need to absorb water through their skin, so they make their homes close to water and in humid areas. To preserve body heat, they hibernate when the temperature goes below freezing. Because they are cold-blooded, it takes them a lot of energy to stay warm during the winter. Hibernation saves them from having to burn this energy and lets them rest instead. Most of them are nocturnal, hunting by night and hiding during the day.
While a few select species give birth to live young, nearly every salamander lays eggs. Baby salamanaders are similar to tadpoles: they are born without legs in clear, jelly-like eggs and released into the water.
Salamanders have quite a long lifespan for amphibians. Depending on their size, they can live to 55 years.
The salamander appears frequently in different mythologies. If you’re like me, you might associate salamanders with fire. Many stories sprang from the tendency of salamanders to hide in rotting logs. When people used these logs for firewood, the salamander would scurry out, making it look like they were created from the fire.
Pliny the Elder, my favourite natural philosopher, wrote that “A salamander is so cold that it puts out fire on contact. It vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this liquid touches any part of the human body it causes all the hair to fall off, and the skin to change color and break out in a rash.” They were thought to be so toxic that it could poison a fruit to such a degree that if that fruit fell into a well, it would kill anyone who drank from it.
There are so many distinct salamander species that I’d love to get into someday, but hopefully this was a good general overview! They’re such interesting creatures, and I’ll admit I only knew the tiniest amount before writing this post. Leave a comment on what animal you’d like me to write about next!
Also, I have a RedBubble store now! You can buy prints of my illustrations, like this salamander, for mugs, shirts, pins and more!