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What is a Salamander?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A salamander is an amphibian in the order Caudata which has a lizardlike appearance, although salamanders lack the scales of true lizards. This order encompasses hundreds of individual salamander species and several large groupings, including sirens, salamanders without rear legs, and newts, a large group of salamanders found throughout the Northern hemisphere. These primordial creatures are believed to be among the oldest of living vertebrates found on land, and they provide interesting clues into the development of life on Earth.

The common name “salamander” is derived from an Ancient Greek word, salamandra, which appears to be of Eastern origin. The word was absorbed into Latin and later Old French, and used to refer to a mythical creature which could walk through fire. The link between these shy amphibians and this mythical creature is unclear; needless to say, fire is as damaging to salamanders as it is to most other living organisms.

Like other amphibians, salamanders prefer damp, moist places such as marshes, swamps, and waterways. They are especially abundant in North America, where they can be found in and around ponds, streams, and lakes. Some species also live arboreal lifestyles, favoring the environment of trees for their adult habitats. Salamanders range widely in size and coloration, but all of them have smooth, porous skins which may feel damp to the touch, along with long tails. Some species are also quite colorful, with beautiful orange or red spots on their bodies.

A salamander starts out as an aquatic larva hatched from an egg. Salamander larvae have gills so that they can breathe underwater until they develop into adults with lungs. Depending on the species, the salamander may live a primarily aquatic life, or it may range further afield. In all cases, salamanders are carnivores, preferring insects and small animals for food, and they are excellent swimmers.

As a general rule, salamanders avoid direct light, and many of them are nocturnal as a result. The animals do not thrive well in dry conditions, as most species need to keep their skins moist to promote general health and gas exchange. Because their skins are highly porous, salamanders are susceptible to environmental toxins and rough handling. Humans should be aware that salamanders can also carry bacteria which may be transferred through handling with bare hands. As a result, it is a good idea to wash your hands after dealing with salamanders.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon180947 — On May 27, 2011

I caught a lizard like thing but it has what look like feathers behind it's head,so what it? Is it a salamander or a newt?

By StormyKnight — On Oct 24, 2010

@dega2010: What they eat depends greatly on the habitat of the particular salamander and the type of salamander. There are basically 3 types of salamanders: aquatic, semi-aquatic, and terrestrial.

Most of the salamander species are carnivorous. They usually feed on invertebrates. The aquatic salamanders usually feed on small fish. The terrestrial salamanders eat a lot of small insects. Generally, salamanders in the wild feed on organisms such as flies, crickets, worms, roaches, locusts, and moths.

By dega2010 — On Oct 24, 2010

What do salamanders eat?

By wesley91 — On Oct 24, 2010

@cellmania: Well, for the first question, to find their prey, salamanders use what is called trichromatic color vision in the ultraviolet range. The permanently subterranean salamanders have reduced eyes that are sometimes covered by a layer of skin.

To escape predators, salamanders use what is called tail autotomy. Their tail will drop off and wiggle around for a little while. That gives the salamander time to run away or either stay very still so to not be noticed by the predator. The tail autotomy serves as a great distraction to the salamander’s predators.

Within a few weeks, the tail will have grown back.

By CellMania — On Oct 24, 2010

How do salamanders find their prey or keep from being another animal's prey?

By alex94 — On Oct 24, 2010

@anon15675: From what I have read, salamanders are not a danger to humans. I know that they secrete some type of poison but in the article I read, it is not harmful to us. Hope that helps.

By anon15675 — On Jul 18, 2008

are salamanders harmful to human beings?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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