The Spectacular World of Salamanders

Cold-blooded cuties

Photo: Ashley Wahlberg (Tubbs) [CC by ND-2.0]/Flickr

They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, textures and colors and have a wide range of habitats throughout the world. With more than 500 species, the salamander is a brightly-donned (and pretty cute) feat of nature. Their diversity as a species owes itself to the different environments they live in – and makes the salamander one of Earth's most interesting creatures.

Mythical fire lizards?

William Warby/Flickr.

According to Animal Planet, salamanders were so-named because the creatures usually lived in wood piles used for cooking fires in the Middle Ages, and this led people to believe they lived in the fire, hence the Greek word for "mythical lizard that lived in fire."

But alas, salamanders are not lizards, nor can they live in fire. But there is such a thing as a fire salamander (pictured)!

Frogs ... with tails

Sara Viernum/Flickr.

Though they may look like lizards, salamanders are closely related to frogs and toads. As amphibians, salamanders emerge from their eggs looking similar to tadpoles, but they keep their tails and (usually) four limbs throughout their lives. Some salamanders have at least one thing in common with lizards: they can remove their tails to get out of tricky siutations, and can grow them back with time.

Masters of their environment

Dave Huth/Flickr.

Salamanders are excellent at hiding in plain sight: hiding under stones, moving among rocks and covering themselves in dirt. According to Smithsonian Magazine, salamanders have survived no less than three mass extinctions and they've been around for more than 200 million years!

Great defenders

Sara Viernum/Flickr.

Many salamanders have built-in defense mechanisms, another factor contributing to their survival over the millenia. Their skin secretes a slimy coating, making them difficult to capture. Some toxic salamanders warn predators with bright coloring. Others, such as the Southern red salamander (pictured), simply benefit from looking like a more toxic species.

Carnivorous cannibals

Bill Bouton/Flickr.

Salamanders seem harmless to humans, but they actually have small teeth that can help them capture and hold on to prey — which often includes smaller salamanders. Their diets also include earthworms, flies, beetles, moths, spiders and other insects.

Lungless salamanders

Dave Huth/Flickr.

Salamanders that belong to the Plethodontidae family breathe through their skin, never actually developing lungs. The Oregon slender salamander, pictured here, needs a moist forest habitat to survive but is currently threatened by habitat loss in the Northwestern United States.

Mole salamanders

Dave Huth/Flickr.

Salamanders that belong to the Ambystomatidae family have characteristically huge eyes and vivid patterning. The spotted salamander (that dirty one in the picture) spends most of its life burrowed underground.

Giant salamanders

Bill Rhodes/Flickr.

Giant salamanders, or members of the Cryptobranchidae family, absorb oxygen through gills and folds of skin. Some giant salamanders can live to be more than 50 years old, while others can grow to nearly six feet in length. The hellbender (shown here) is the only giant salamander that can be found in the United States. These homely critters have earned nicknames like "snot otter," "mud-devil" and "devil dog."

Asiatic salamanders

Tatiana Bulyonkova/Flickr.

Asiatic salamanders, closely related to giant salamanders, range throughout Asia and into European Russia. Siberian salamanders, like the one shown, have been known to survive temperatures as low as minusn 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Rumor has it, some of them have survived after being frozen for years.

Congo eels

squamatologist/Flickr.

Often mistaken for snakes or eels, amphiumas (colloquially "congo eels") are aquatic salamanders that range across the Southeastern United States. Amphiumas have 25 more times more DNA than humans.

Pacific giant salamanders

Dave Huth/Flickr.

Not quite as large as their cousins, Pacific giant salamanders can grow to be about a foot long. Unlike most salamanders, Pacific giant salamanders can vocalize croaks.

Mudpuppies and olms

SanShoot/Flickr.

Mudpuppies and olms, which make up the Proteidae family, are descendants from creatures that lived millions of years ago. Mudpuppies (or waterdogs) are so named because of the sound they make, which many perceive to sound like a dog's bark. Olms (pictured) have adapted to live in complete darkness, and though they are blind, they have advanced hearing and smelling capabilities.

Torrent salamanders

Global Herper/Flickr.

These tiny salamanders were placed in their own family in 1992. The cascade torrent salamander, pictured, lives throughout the Cascade Mountains in clear, cold streams.

True salamanders and newts

Dave Huth/Flickr.

The Salamandridae family consists of brightly patterned newts and salamanders. Two salamanders in this category give birth to live young. In the red eft stage of the Eastern newt's growth (shown here), the newt travels over land until it finds a suitable pond to facilitate its transformation from orange to green — always keeping its signature red spots.

Sirens

Zeke Franco/Flickr.

Believe it or not, these strange-looking creatures are also considered salamanders. With just two limbs and frilled gills, these expert swimmers are entirely aquatic. Sirens are only found in the Southeastern United States and northern Mexico.

Facing threats

Dark Sevier/Flickr.

As amphibian populations decline worldwide, scientists have started focusing on conservation efforts for salamanders. Climate change, pollution and habitat loss are areas of particular concern. The Chinese giant salamander faces perhaps the greatest threat, as it continues to be used for medicinal purposes. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Species Survival has recently highlighted the Appalachian region as an area with concentrated conservation efforts.