Did you know that the largest salamander in the world can weigh over 100 pounds? Did you know that some salamanders do not have lungs? Did you know there is a salamander called a “hellbender”? Did you know that the famous Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” was actually referring to a Tiger Salamander? Okay, that last one may have been made up, but salamanders are actually really cool and underappreciated by many people.
Salamanders are amphibians, cold-blooded creatures (I once saw a salamander bite the head off a helpless earthworm) whose life cycles often include time in the water and on land. Generally, young salamanders are aquatic and have external fins, while adults lose the fins and spend more time on land. Salamander populations are often considered important indicators of overall wetland health. The most diverse population of salamanders in the world is in the southeastern United States, in the Appalachian Mountain region. The combination of forests, natural streams, and elevational gradients provide suitable habitat for many salamanders. Among the salamanders that live in this region is the Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). Hellbenders have flat heads and wrinkled bodies, and generally measure between 12 and 24 inches in length, making them the largest salamanders in North America. Hellbenders are fully aquatic and feast on crayfish, insects, minnows, and worms. They prefer to live in natural, fast-flowing streams or rivers with plenty of rocks and woody debris. They usually make their homes in clean water containing high amounts of oxygen, meaning the presence of a hellbender can provide a positive indication of stream health. Unfortunately, their specific habitat requirements means that they are very sensitive to changes in water quality or flow due to pollution or dam development. Many populations are currently declining due to habitat loss. As a side note, if you happen to catch a hellbender while trout fishing, make every effort to remove the hook. Hellbenders are not poisonous, though they can warp the effects of Hades.
Hellbender that I stumbled upon while biking in Virginia!
Next up is the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra). Fire Salamanders are native to eastern and central Europe, and often utilize forest floors and streams in cool, wet areas. They generally grow to between 6 and 8 inches long, and like many salamanders, can often be found under logs, moss, or leaf litter. They will eat earthworms, crickets, and other soft invertebrates, preferring to roast their prey by breathing fire. Though many salamanders lay eggs, Fire Salamanders actually give birth to developed larvae, which finish metamorphosis in nearby streams or ponds. Fire Salamanders defend themselves against predators by secreting neurotoxins through glands located on the skin, and may even spray the chemicals at predators in some cases! Fire Salamanders have aposematic coloration, meaning that their color pattern is meant to warn predators that they are an unprofitable prey item. By the way, if you cross a Fire Salamander with a Hellbender, you’ll have a Firebender.
Left – larval Fire Salamander. Note the visible gills. Right – adult eating a worm.
Plethodontids are a family of lungless salamanders, which breathe through their skin and lining in their mouths. This family is the most diverse of the salamander families and includes the Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), which generally lives in upland forest wetlands from Kentucky to New York and around the Great Lakes. Jefferson Salamanders have a nasolabial groove that is charateristic of the plethodontids. This groove enables a salamander to receive and interpret chemical signals from the environment. Jefferson Salamanders have wide snouts, long toes, and slender grayish bodies dotted with specks of blue (young tend to have more spots than adults). They may hybridize with Blue-Spotted Salamanders in sections of their range. Jefferson Salamanders are sometimes involved in a reproductive complex with other Ambystoma salamanders. Scientific evidence suggests that unisexual Ambystoma females engage in kleptogenesis, which involves “stealing” genes from resident males to aid in adapting to local environmental conditions!
Young Jefferson Salamander that I found by a rotting log.
So I bet you’re still wondering about the salamanders that grow to be over 100 pounds . . . or maybe your attention span is so short you already forgot about it. In any case, you’re going to have to wait until my next blog to learn about that mystery! Or you could Google it, but that would ruin the suspense. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to create some Firebenders and munch on a few earthworms.