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SALAMANDERS
& NEWTS

California Newt, Taricha torosa -- picture by Fred & Diana Adams of Placerville, California
California Newt, Taricha torosa
Photo by Fred & Diana Adams of California

Despite there being over a hundred species of salamanders,  salamander-like critters and newts in North America north of Mexico, most of us won't see many or any in our backyards. Since they are amphibians, they lose water from their bodies easily. In other words, usually our backyards are too dry for them. However, the picture above of a California Newt was taken by friends in California who one day, right before a rain, discovered this one outside their door. Therefore, there's always a chance...

CLASSIFICATION

By referring to "salamanders, salamander-like critters and newts" we're focusing on the order Caudata, one of the two orders of the class Amphibia (the other order contains frogs and toads). The order Caudata is made up of eight families, seven of which are found in North America. Here are those seven families:

ADULTS OFTEN TERRESTRIAL:

  • Lungless Salamander Family (Plethodontidae) -- largest family, with about 80 species in North America north of Mexico, like slender lizards but without scales and with slimy skin; they are really lungless, breathing through their skin; note the Cave Salamander below, a member of this familiy
  • Mole Salamander Family (Ambystomidae) -- like the above, but more thick-bodied; maybe the best-known one is the Tiger Salamander
  • Newt Family (Salamandridae) -- like salamanders but skin not slimy, rather rough textured

ALL STAGES AQUATIC:

  • Giant Salamander Family (Cryptobranchidae) -- clear, fast-flowing streams and rivers with rocky bottoms
  • Siren Family (Sirenidae) -- eel-like "permanent aquatic larvae" with external gills, no hind limbs, and tiny forelegs
  • Mudpuppy & Waterdog Family (Proteidae) -- "permanent aquatic larvae" with red, plumelike tgills, 4 toes on both front and hind feeet, and flattened tails
  • Amphiuma Family (Amphiumidae) -- aquatic, eel-like, with 4 tiny, useless  limbs, each with 1-3 toes
Cave Salamander, Eurycea lucifuga, from Alabama
Cave Salamander, Eurycea lucifuga, a member of the Lungless Salamander Family, about six inches long.Photo by Bruce J. "Sleazeweazel" Morgan of Alabama.

Unless we can snorkle in our backyards we can just give up looking there for species comprising the last four families. However, some of us may have streams or ditches running by our houses, so those of us who do should never give up looking for members of the first three families, especially when it's rainy, or rain is in the offing.

LIFE HISTORIES

Salamanders and their kin are secretive, voiceless, and usually nocturnal. The most obvious differences between them and lizards is that they lack scales on their skin, have no claws, and bear no external ear openings. Both adults and their larvae (the immature stages) are carnivorous. Most salamanders lay their eggs in water. Larvae hatching in water bear external gills that are lost as they metamorphose into adults. The larvae of species that lay eggs on land do not have an aquatic stage, and look like miniature editions of the adults.

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