Salamanders are the forgotten amphibians. They’ve taken a backseat to frogs in stories, games, and puppetry. But they can be just as entertaining as frogs, as anyone who has seen the lost Muppet Sammy the Singing Salamander can attest.
Folks overlook Sammy and the other salamanders partially because these amphibians from the Caudata order are super elusive. They spend time in super shady places, like under rocks and in holes in or near water during the day.
These fugitive amphibians make up 760 species worldwide, and a third hang out in North America. Salamanders grow to various sizes, from the six-foot-long, 140-pound Japanese giant salamander to the half-inch, barely measurable pygmy salamander. Most salamanders, especially those in North Louisiana, are between three and six inches long. Terrestrial and semi-aquatic salamanders who live part of their lives on land tend to be smaller than aquatic salamanders. North Louisiana’s tiger salamander, the largest terrestrial salamander in the world, can grow to between seven inches and just over a foot. The longest salamander in North Louisiana is the aquatic two-toed amphiuma, which can grow twice the size of the tiger salamander to nearly four feet long!
Salamanders Through History
Like modern salamanders, the sizes of salamanders’ prehistoric ancestors varied. The earliest recorded salamander-like animal is the amphibamus from the Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era. The amphibamus lived between 300 and 310 million years ago, was about two feet long, and probably lived in creeks and swamps. Amphibamus may have been able to breathe through its skin like modern-day salamanders.
By the time the Late Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era rolled around nearly a hundred million years later, the metoposaurus, a super predator and the largest amphibian in history, was shuffling through lakes and rivers. The first true salamander species, Triassurus sixtelae, roamed modern-day Kyrgyzstan during that same period, probably living at the bottom of a now dried-up lake. This giant amphibious lizard, a distant relative of modern-day salamanders, ate small, fully grown dinosaurs and the babies of large dinosaurs.
Paleontologists have discovered remains of multiple salamander species from the Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era. By 166-168 million years ago, the eight-inch Egoria and the 4-inch Kiyatriton, which were probably aquatic amphibians, had emerged. Urupia monstrosa, a two-foot-long amphibious lizard from the extinct genus Urupia, appeared in modern-day Siberia at least 165 million years ago.
If the diversity of ancient salamanders isn’t enough to make your head spin, modern salamanders are even harder to categorize. It’s not accurate to say all salamander adults are terrestrial; the largest salamanders worldwide, like the Japanese and South China giant salamanders, are aquatic. While most modern salamanders live in moist, humid areas in or near water like their ancient counterparts, the Iranian harlequin newt lives in the deserts of the Zagros Mountains, where it hardly rains. It’s not accurate to say that all salamanders lay their eggs in the water! Some salamanders, like slimy salamanders, bury their eggs in moist soil instead. It’s not even accurate to say that all salamanders are born in the larval stage. Those troublesome slimy salamanders skip the larval stage and come out looking like mini-adults.
About Salamanders in North Louisiana
North Louisiana’s warm, humid climate makes it the perfect place for cold-blooded animals who thrive in warm, moist environments where they can both regulate their body temperature and keep their skin wet. If you’re hanging out near the North Louisiana water (so basically, if you’re hanging out in North Louisiana), you could bump into one of sixteen species of salamanders. These species who live in and around the slow-moving waters of our forests and swamps are almost as diversified as your 401K should be. Salamanders from six subfamilies within the Salamandridae family of the Caudata order reside in our neck of the woods.
Spotted, marbled, mole, small-mouthed, and eastern tiger salamanders from the Ambystomatidae subfamily; three-toed amphiuma from the Amphiumidae subfamily; spotted dusky, Valentine’s southern dusky, western dwarf, Louisiana slimy, and southern red-backed salamanders from the Plethodontidae subfamily; Gulf Coast waterdogs and red river mudpuppies from the Proteidae subfamily; eastern and central newts from the Salamandridae subfamily; and lesser siren from the Sirenidae subfamily all live in North Louisiana.
The area is home to aquatic, semi-aquatic salamanders, and terrestrial. Some of these salamanders have gills; some have lungs, some have neither! Some are black. Some are red, and a few are even orange! Many are short lizard-like amphibians, while others are long snake-like animals with tiny legs that can be almost invisible.
Unlike frogs and toads, many salamanders are confused for lizards because of their surprise, surprise, lizard-like appearance. You can distinguish salamanders from lizards by their skin. Most salamanders have smooth, wet skin, although newts have bumpy, damp skin. On the other hand, Lizards have skin that appears to be dry and is composed of tiny scales. Another way to tell salamanders from lizards is their eyes. Salamanders have larger eyes than most lizards in North Louisiana, the invasive Mediterranean gecko being the lizard exception with large eyes.
Another way to tell salamanders from lizards is their color. Many North Louisiana salamanders are black or reddish with spots or stripes, whereas our lizards are brown, gray, and green. Skinks, particularly juvenile five-lined skinks, are often confused with salamanders. We think it’s because they hang out at all the same clubs: Skinks and salamanders both live under rocks, boards, and garbage near water. The confusion could also come from similar coloration. Juvenile five-lined skinks are also black and can appear moist from a distance. An easy way to tell the difference is that young five-lined skinks have bright blue tails.
While folks often confuse smaller salamanders with lizards, others confuse larger aquatic salamanders like amphiuma, sirens, and mudpuppies for eels, fish, and snakes. The clues here are the gills and feet that the amphibians have, along with, again, the skin. Salamanders appear to have one piece of skin, while snakes and fish have scales. Eels are vertically flat with silver to green coloring.
The most significant difference between amphibians and their reptile doppelgangers is that reptiles are born with lungs, and most salamanders are born with gills, which some keep for their entire lives. But, like everything else salamander, that “born with gills” rule doesn’t apply to all North Louisiana salamanders. Those pesky Louisiana slimy salamanders are born without lungs or gills, breathing through their skin from birth.
Diet and Lifecycle
Like frogs and toads, most salamanders are freshwater amphibians. Most lay their fertilized eggs on leaves and sticks and under rocks in shallow water, and the young are born with gills and without legs. Once these young salamanders grow legs, they can move around on land but stay near water. Some salamanders, like the Louisiana slimy salamander, lay their eggs in moist soil in rotten logs or under leaf litter.
Unlike other salamander species who look like tadpoles as larvae, Louisiana slimy salamanders are born mini salamanders without gills. Eastern and central newts, on the other hand, lose their gills to become (often brightly colored) terrestrial adults called efts before returning to the water as dark aquatic salamanders with orange underbellies and paddle-like tails.
Salamander larvae differ from the tadpoles of their amphibian relatives in that they are born carnivores, unlike frog and toad tadpoles, who are born herbivores. Salamander larvae start life eating their own eggshell before moving on to microorganisms and small insects.
As they grow, terrestrial salamanders’ tails will elongate and flesh out, and those salamanders who develop lungs do. At this point in their lives, they begin to spend more time on land hunting and hiding. While many salamanders stay near water and in moist environments, others spend their time in drier places like leaf litter. Other salamanders, like amphiuma, sirens, and waterdogs, rarely leave the water. Unlike terrestrial salamanders, amphiuma lose their gills but keep a pair of gill slits, and sirens, mudpuppies, and waterdogs maintain their gills and use the lungs they develop mainly for buoyancy in the water.
North Louisiana is home to several lungless salamanders who breathe only through membranes in their mouths and skin. When these salamanders transition from larvae to adulthood, those born with gills lose them without developing lungs. The spotted dusky, Valentine’s spotted dusky, Louisiana slimy, and southern red-backed salamanders all fit this category. How cool is that?
Again, like frogs, toads, and many reptiles, salamanders are ambush predators who hunt by waiting for prey to pass nearby and quickly ensnaring it with their tongues. As adults, aquatic salamanders, like amphiuma and mudpuppies, eat fish and other amphibians and live in large bodies of water for the rest of their lives, sometimes moving closer to the shore to hunt. Terrestrial salamanders eat bugs, worms, slugs, and snails, serving an essential function in the North Louisiana ecosystem, which is, as you’ve noticed, saturated with creepy crawlies and creepy flies.
Unfortunately, salamanders, especially the young, have a lot of predators: Crawfish, water bugs, frogs, fish, birds, and small mammals all dine on salamander larvae, while frogs, fish, birds, minks, raccoons, river otters, snakes, and even turtles snack on adult salamanders. These predators, along with diseases, kill many salamanders. Salamanders who survive into adulthood and manage to evade predators can live up to 30 years in the wild. Since these amphibians reach maturity at about five years old, many repeat the mating process through multiple seasons. However, because of natural dangers and habitat loss, salamanders are less common than they used to be. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries designate the eastern tiger and Webster’s salamanders as critically imperiled in Louisiana.
With all the differences between salamanders, they share one commonality: all of them can dehydrate if their skin isn’t moist enough. Amphiuma and sirens dehydrate extremely quickly when they are out of the water. Occasionally, they will come onto land to hunt in the rain. When the shallow areas that they live in dry up, these clever salamanders burrow into the mud and estivate, during which they secrete a mucus that helps keep them moist. That moisture helps them survive.
Where to Find North Louisiana Salamanders
Although salamanders live throughout North Louisiana, we’ve only seen a few of these animals in our many wildlife treks. We’ve had the best luck in hardwood and mixed forested areas near bayous and rivers. If you look in the right places, you can even find a few species of sirens and amphiuma, large salamanders, in North Louisiana’s many waterways. We suggest you check out creek and river bottoms, especially places where vegetation and mud hang over the edge for amphiuma, mudpuppies, sirens, and waterdogs. You may also be able to find amphiuma in the edges of lake overflow, ditches, murky ponds, and even in city creeks – where the water is clean yet muddy enough.
For smaller salamanders, check near rocks, logs, vegetation, and damp leaf litter. While some folks enjoy overturning rocks and logs to find the salamanders, we suggest that you try to find them without disturbing their habitat. You can hurt the salamander by moving the debris or returning it. Removing their cover can also signal where they are to nearby predators. You can find North Louisiana salamanders under rocks or logs and in trees in or near slow-moving and stagnant water. On warm, rainy nights, you may even see salamanders of all sizes jogging across the road, absorbing water from the shower into their skin.
We’ve seen four salamanders in the wild: two amphiuma, one in Haynesville and one at the Black Bayou Lake NWR, a spotted salamander at Black Bayou Lake NWR, and a marbled salamander at the D’Arbonne NWR. On warm, rainy nights, you may even see them jogging across the road, absorbing water from the shower into their skin.
While we encourage you to be on the lookout for these colorful creatures, we don’t suggest flipping rocks and debris to find them. Remember snakes and spiders, including venomous ones, also use these shelters. Also, remember, many amphibians breathe through their skin. You should never handle amphibians; your skin can draw the moisture from theirs, causing them to have trouble breathing or stop breathing altogether.
When to Find North Louisiana Newts & Salamanders
Aquatic salamanders, amphiuma, mudpuppies, sirens, and waterdogs live under rocks and vegetation at the bottom of slow-moving streams during the day and hunt at night. Like most salamanders, they are nocturnal animals. Terrestrial salamanders stay under rocks and rotten logs near water during the day. They are also nocturnal, coming out at night to hunt.
Salamanders are active and breed during all four seasons in North Louisiana. They are most active from February through October when the weather warms up and the breeding season starts. Salamanders often alter their nocturnal habits in winter. Although active on warm winter days, they will brumate during cold snaps, burrowing deep in the mud below the frost line to stay warm and resting to conserve energy. Low nighttime temperatures can drive them to hunt in the warmth of the day.