What's the Difference Between a Salamander and a Newt?

One is semi-aquatic, the other mostly terrestrial.

Yellow-eyed Ensatina. Jaymi Heimbuch

The labels of newt and salamander are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to understand why some people think these two distinct amphibians are the same animal. But there are, in fact, distinctions between the two.

Newts are a type of salamander, belonging to a subfamily called Pleurodelinae of the family Salamandridae. Essentially, all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. Beyond a name, how do you know if you're looking at a newt or a salamander?

A Few Differences Between the Two

As adults, newts live a semi-aquatic to aquatic life, while adult salamanders live a mostly terrestrial life, except for when they're breeding and laying eggs. Most newts have webbed feet and a paddle-like tail, which make it easier to live in the water. Salamanders typically have longer and more rounded tails with well-developed toes for digging in soil.

A newt's skin is rough and looks like it's covered in warts, while a salamander's is wet, slick, and shiny. (This is not always the case.) Despite appearing different, though, both need damp conditions to keep their skin moist or else they could die.

Newts begin their life in water, but then move to land for a curious period of development, during which they grow their paddle-shaped tails. Their bright orange skin fades to green by the time they return to their ponds as aquatic adults, ready for reproduction. During their terrestrial phase, however, when they're known as "red efts," they can be mistaken for red salamanders, a larger species that is found in the same regions.

Newts develop lungs as they grow, unlike other salamanders that continue breathing through their skin for the duration of their life. Their skin also contains tetrodotoxin (TTX), a chemical that's 1,000 times more toxic to humans than cyanide and plays a major role in deterring potential predators from gulping down the tasty-looking newt. Some common garter snakes have built up a resistance to this chemical.

What About Axolotls?

Axolotls are an unusual type of salamander that keeps its juvenile characteristics for life, such as webbed feet; this is described as being "neotenic." The San Diego Zoo explains, "The axolotl remains aquatic (like larvae) their entire life. Though it develops functional lungs, it uses its fancy, feathery gills to breathe underwater. Like youngsters, they retain external gills, a tail, and a body fin, and lack moveable eyelids."

Are Newts and Salamanders Safe to Touch?

As a human, you can touch newts and salamanders, but it's important to be aware that newts' skin contains a toxin. It's best to use gloves if handling, and always to wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Touching is less harmful than ingesting, and while eating a newt seems like an unlikely scenario, it has happened before; one source says that "a toddler once fatally consumed a portion of the tail of an Oregon Rough Skinned Newt—a species somewhat less toxic than the California Newt but still harmful."

Salamanders are safer to handle, but as with many amphibians with porous skin, the substances on your hands, like lotions and sunscreen and oils, may cause them harm. Ensure your hands are wet or muddy before picking up a salamander, and try to avoid handling unless you're removing them from harm's way. Wash your hands afterward.

Even with these physical differences, the easiest way to know what you're looking at is to learn the individual species. The amphibian in this photograph is a yellow-eyed ensatina, a salamander species native to California.

View Article Sources
  1. Mancini, Mark, "What's the Difference Between a Newt and a Salamander?" How Stuff Works. 24 Nov. 2020.

  2. Hanifin, Charles T, and William F Gilly. “Evolutionary history of a complex adaptation: tetrodotoxin resistance in salamanders.” Evolution, vol. 69, no. 1, 2015, pp. 232-44, doi:10.1111/evo.12552

  3. "Axolotl." San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

  4. "Western Newts." Toxic Animals Around the World.