Salamander Photos and Natural History

Salamanders are often overlooked because of their secretive behavior, but they fill important ecological roles. If you were to weigh all the salamanders in some environments, the total weight of salamanders would be equal to the weight of all mammals, and twice the weight of birds. They occupy an intermediate spot in the food web, serving as both predators and prey. Most terrestrial salamanders eat small insects, worms and other invertebrates, but some large species will consume other salamanders and even mammals and snakes. As prey, salamanders are consumed by many other species, including invertebrates, mammals, fish, snakes, and birds. If salamanders were to disappear from an area, there would be serious impacts on the environment, including increases in the numbers of insects.

Little Red Eft

Salamanders are amphibians, like frogs and toads. Many salamanders have a two-stage life cycle with an aquatic larval ("tadpole") stage, and a terrestrial adult stage. Aquatic salamander larvae have feathery gills on the side of their heads that are lost when they metamorphose into the terrestrial life-stage. However, salamanders have evolved many variants of this life cycle. In some species the aquatic life stage is completely skipped, and salamanders hatch from eggs into tiny terrestrial salamanders. Other species of salamander completely skip the terrestrial life stage, keep larval traits like external gills, and mature into adults capable of reproduction.

Here you will find photographs, video and information on three of the major families of salamander found in North America:

Ambystomatidae Salamandridae Plethodontidae

The text, images and videos on this site are Michael F. Benard. To purchase prints or a license to use an image, just click on the image. More photos can be found at my smugmug natural history galleries, and more videos can be found on my youtube natural history channel.

For questions about image use, salamander biology, or other topics, please contact me via email at: mfbenard -{at}- gmail dot com

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More information on my research is available on the Benard Lab website.

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Ambystomatidae

The Ambystomatidae consists of 32 species that range from Mexico through the United States, and into Canada. All ambystomatid salamanders lay eggs, which hatch into an aquatic larval stage. The aquatic larvae have feathery external gills and are carnivorous. They'll eat small invertebrates, tadpoles, and even other salamanders.

Adult Spotted Salamanders in Breeding Pond
Two Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) interacting with each other underwater in a pond during the springtime breeding season.
Adult Male Spotted Salamander with head out of water
An adult Spotted Salamander pokes its head out of the water during the breeding season.
Unisexual Ambystoma salamander with head out of water.
A unisexual Ambystoma takes a breather while sitting in a breeding pond with its head out of the water.
Male Spotted Salamander Cloaca
Male Spotted Salamander Cloaca.
During the breeding season you can tell apart male and female Ambystomatid salamanders by looking at their cloacas. The cloaca is the reproductive and excretory orifice just past the hindlimbs. Males' cloacas are swollen, whereas the females' are not. Female Spotted Salamander Cloaca
Female Spotted Salamander Cloaca.
Adult Tiger Salamander
A small adult Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) in the breeding pond.
Ambystoma Salamander Spermatophore
Males deposit spermatophores on leaves, sticks and other materials. The females pick up the spermatophores and use them to fertilize eggs.
Spotted Salamander Eggs
Eggs of two species of (Ambystoma): Spotted Salamanders and Unisexual salamanders.
Ambystoma larva with large gills
An Ambystoma larva with very large gills. The large gills are probably due to low oxygen in its home pond.
Larva of Jefferson's Salamander Complex
Profile of a large Ambystoma larva.
Ambystoma Salamander Larva with Wood Frog Tadpole
Large Ambystoma larva near a Wood Frog tadpole.

Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum larva from southeastern Michigan.

Tiger Salamander larvae are voracious predators, eating small invertebrates, tadpoles and even other Ambystoma.
Size comparison of metamorphosing salamanders
Two recently metamorphosed Ambystoma: Tiger Salamander (top) and unisexual Ambystoma.
Size comparison of metamorphosing salamanders
Two juvenile Ambystoma
Metamorphosing Tiger Salamander
This recently metamorphosed Tiger Salamander has not yet developed the adult color pattern, and still has the remnants of gills behind its head.
Adult Tiger Salamander
An adult Tiger Salamander showing an example of the adult color pattern.
Habitat for Spotted Salamanders Juvenile Spotted and Blue-Spotted Salamanders
Juvenile Spotted Salamander and Blue Spotted Salamanders found under a log in terrestrial habitat a few months after metamorphosis. At this point, they have developed their adult color patterns.
Salamander portrait head white background
Spotted Salamander: one of our most charismatic ambystomatids
Spotted Salamander Whole Body White Background
Adult Male Spotted Salamander

Amphibian deformities can be caused by both natural events and human activities. Specific environmental conditions during an amphibian's larval stage can disrupt its development and cause diverse types of deformities of the legs and toes. Disruptions during the larval stage from anthropogenic pollutants can also prevent normal development of reproductive organs in amphibians, resulting in amphibians that cannot reproduce.


Deformed limb on a female Tiger Salamander. Despite the limb deformity, she seemed healthy and appeared full of eggs.
Metamorphosing Tiger Salamander
Regenerating limb on a recently-metamorphosed Tiger Salamander that was likely bitten off by a predator.

Toe deformity in a unisexual Ambystoma from northeast Ohio. This was probably caused by a parasitic infection when the salamander was a larva.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Ambystoma is the existence of all-female, clonal-reproducing, sperm-stealing Unisexual Ambystoma.


A unisexual Ambystoma (left) compared to a Smallmouth Salalmander (right).

Unisexual Ambystoma from southeastern Michigan that likely has at least one copy of the Blue-Spotted Salamander genome.


Unisexual Ambystoma from northeastern Ohio that likely has at least one copy of the Jefferson's Salamander genome.

Salamandridae

The Salamandridae are often toxic and brightly colored. They have a nearly worldwide distribution. Two genera are found in North America: Taricha and Notophthalmus. Taricha are large-bodied newts found on the west coast of North America, while Notopthalmus are much smaller and found in eastern North America.

The most widespread Notopthalmus is the Eastern Newt, with a geographic range stretching over much of eastern North America. The other two species have much smaller geographic ranges and are either threatened or endangered.

Eastern Newts (Notopthalmus viridescens) have one of the most complex amphibian life cycles. All Eastern Newts start their lives as aquatic eggs that hatch into small, aquatic larvae. Like other species of salamander, newt larvae have external gills. In many populations, the newt larvae develop for a few months before metamorphosing and moving onto land. The terrestrial stage is known as the "eft" stage. Efts are typically bright red with rough skin. Several years will be spent living on land in the red eft stage. As the efts reach adult size, they migrate into wetlands and undergo another transformation. Although they keep their small red spots, the rest of their red coloration turns into a more cryptic olive color. The adults will then mate in the wetlands, keeping the cycle going.


Video of red eft eating bugs in rain
Eastern Newt Larva
Eastern Newt Larva
Eastern Newt Larva
Eastern Newt larvae; note the external gills behind the head.
Red Eft
Red Eft stage of the Eastern Newt

Terrestrial Eastern Newt Eft
Gilled Adult Eastern Newt
In certain populations, some adult newts will also have external gills.
Eastern Newt Photobombs Peepers
An Eastern Newt photobombs a mating pair of spring peepers.
Male Eastern Newt
Adult male Eastern Newt in its pond environment.
Nuptial Pads and Hind Legs of Male Newt
Male newts can be identified during the breeding season by the presence of black nuptial pads on the underside of their hind legs.
Female Newts lack nuptial pads on hindlegs.
Female Newts lack nuptial pads on their hind legs.

The newts of the genus Taricha are found along the Pacific coast of North America. Two of the species are found only in California: the California Newt and the Red-Bellied Newt. One species is found from northern California into British Columbia: the Rough Skinned Newt. You can tell apart the Taricha species by a combination of geographic range, color pattern, morphology, and behavior.

Taricha newts are toxic, and have been the source of human fatalities through both accidental and intentional ingestion.

Roughskin Newt Roughskin Newts (Taricha granulosa) can be found from California to southern Alaska.
California Newt Laying Egg California Newt Laying Egg
California Newt laying eggs.
California newts mating California newts matin
Mating ball of California Newts.
California New
Adult California Newt hanging on a stick in a stream pool during breeding season.
Frog tries to mate with New
Pacific Chorus Frog tries to mate with a California Newt.
California Newt Egg
Egg masses laid by the California Newt.

Adult male California Newt waiting at the edge of a pond during breeding season.

Drying Pond

Adult California Newt

newt metamorph in crevice

Plethodontidae

With over 460 recognized species, Plethodontidae is the largest family of salamanders. It also contains some of the greatest diversity of life-history habits. Some have a larval stage, some skip the larval stage, and some retain larval traits as adults. However, one key trait unites all Plethodontidae: they completely lack lungs.

There is some debate about whether Plethodontidae should be separated into two major groups or four major groups. Here, I will group these salamanders by four major groups: Hemidactyliinae, Bolitoglossinae, Spelerpinae, and Plethodontinae.

Hemidactylinae

This subfamily contains just a single species, the four-toed salamander: Hemidactylium scutatum. They are found in populations scattered across eastern North America. They have an interesting communal nesting behavior, in which females will guard her own eggs, plus the eggs of unrelated females. After hatching, the young four-toed salamanders go through a brief aquatic larval stage before metamorphosing to live on land.

Four-Toed Salamander
Four-Toed Salamander
Four-Toed Salamander
Four-Toed Salamander

Bolitoglossinae

Although there are about 310 species in the Bolitoglossinae, most of the diversity of this group is found in Central America and South America. In the United States we have only one representative of this group: the genus Batrachoseps. Commonly known as "Slender Salamanders", Batrachoseps have long, thin bodies.

Gabilan Mountains slender salamander
Gabilan Mountains slender salamander (Batrachoseps gavilanensis) seen surprisingly close to the beach near Monterey Bay.

Slender salamanders(Batrachoseps attenuatus)

Spelerpinae

The members of this group are confined to the eastern United States and Canada. All of them share an aquatic larval stage. In some species, the adults keep many larval characteristics like gills, and remain fully aquatic as adults. This group also includes several species that have adapted to life in caves.


Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)
Red Salamander and Red Eft
Similar bright color patterns in Red Efts and Red Salamanders may have evolved as a warning to keep predators away.
Spring Salamander Larva
Large Spring Salamander larva
Spring Salamander Larva
Portrait of small Spring Salamander larva

Spring salamanders (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) are one of the largest members of the Plethodontidae. They inhabit streams as larvae and adults.

Tennessee Cave Salamanders (Gyrinophilus palleucus) have adapted to life within caves, and are closely related to Spring Salamanders.


caption

Tennessee Cave Salamanders
Adult Two-Lined Salamander
Adult Two-Lined Salamander
Adult Two-Lined Salamander
Adult Two-Lined Salamander

The genus Eurycea includes two-lined salamanders, cave salamanders, long-tailed salamanders, and some amazing cave-dwelling species.

Plethodontinae

The Plethodontinae is primarily found in North America, but there are a few species in Europe, and at least one species in Asia.

The genus Plethodon . . .

Redback Salamander brooding eggs
Mother Redback Salamander Guarding her eggs.
Redback Salamander Near a Penny
Recently hatched Redback with penny for scale.

Variation in redback salamander color.

Redback Salamander hunting bugs at night.
Redback Salamander on a Rainy Night
Redback Salamander on a rainy night.

The genus Ensatina consists of a single species with direct development. Ensatina range from southern British Columbia to northern Baja California. They are most famous for being a classic example of a ring species.

Ensatina Salamander near mushrooms
Yellow-Eyed Ensatina from Santa Cruz County, CA.
Two Lined Salamander
Close-up of the face of an Ensatina salamander.

The web-toed salamanders Hydromantes are found in western North America. All have direct development. They are also famous for being able to fire their tongue an incredibly long distance to capture prey.

A related group of salamanders in the genus Spelomantes are found in Europe. Some biologists still consider Spelomantes to be part of Hydromantes.

Mount Lyell alamander
Mt. Lyell Salamander
Mount Lyell alamander
The webbed-feet of a Hydromantes salamander.

The genus Aneides consists of six species scattered across North America. One species is found in the eastern United States, another species is found in New Mexico, and the remaining species are found along the pacific coast. All Aneides have direct development from egg to juvenile with no larval stage.

Arboreal Salamande
Arboreal Salamander (Aneides lugubris)
Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus)
Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus)
There are about 20 species in the genus Desmognathus, and all are found in eastern North America. Most members of this genus can be identified by a light line that runs from their eye to the corner of their mouth, although this may be hard to distinguish in old, darkly-colored individuals. They also typically have hindlimbs that are relatively larger than their forelimbs. Nearly all Desmognathus have a larval stage, with the exception of the Pygmy Salamander, which has direct development and skips the larval stage.
Blackbelly Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus)
Blackbelly Salamander, Desmognathus quadramaculatus

Juvenile Desmognathus from the Swain County, North Carolina.

Dusky Salamander with a regenerating tail. It is likely that a predator bit off the tail, and the salamander escaped.
  
Some more pages on herps and natural history:
Pacific Chorus Frog Natural History Snake Image Gallery Buy a salamander mug. Gray Treefrog Tadpole Button
Leech eats frog eggs Coloring page of snakes Albino Toad Egg Development Predaceous diving beetle eating tadpole
Water bug with limpet snails Water Bug Eating Frog Button Kingsnake eating a garter snake Frog Calling Video Button