A few weeks ago I got a chance to collect data for Adopt-A-Stream—a citizen science program that trains community volunteers to monitor the water quality in their local waterways by conducting biological, chemical, and bacterial assessments. As one of the people who helped bring program to my region, I occasionally go out with groups when they sample a stream. The biological assessment involves using a dip net (or D-frame net) to capture macroinvertebrates that serve as a gauge for the amount of pollution in a waterway. After using the dip net to shake loose anything living in a slightly submerged vegetated area, I looked into the net and saw a salamander (shown in featured photo)! I’ve done a lot of aquatic macroinvertebrate sampling and have seen a siren and an amphiuma, but I’ve never caught a member of the Urodela order myself. Needless to say, the experience was probably the highlight of my week—and also the inspiration for this edition of 10 Things You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know.
And, yes, I am aware that a salamander is not a macroinvertebrate.
1. “Salamander” is derived from the Greek word for “fire lizard”.
Salamander is derived from the Latin salamandre, which is a derivation from the Greek salamándrā. Because many salamanders take up residence in rotting logs, when the logs were thrown onto a fire, the salamanders would run out of the log. The escaping salamanders gave the appearance that they were able to run through fire, so the Greeks named them fire lizards.
2. There is a family of salamanders that do not have lungs and breathe through their skin.
The Plethodontidae family is comprised of salamanders that respire without lungs, taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide, through their skin and mouth lining. Their skin must be moist at all times in order for oxygen exchange. As a result, they are found in damp/wet habitats in temperate climates.
Image credit: Gary Nafis, Californiaherps.com
3. Many salamanders eat the shredded outer layer of skin.
As salamanders grow they shed the outer layer of skin. While some species leave the skin somewhere in their habitat, others get rid of it by eating it. There is a great image of this in Firefly Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians (look for it in your local library).
4. The Chinese giant salamander is considered a delicacy.
One of the biggest threats to the Chinese giant salamander population is over-”fishing” due to the human appetite for food considered delicacies. Despite them being an endangered species, some high-end restaurants still serve the dish illegally.
Image credit: BBC Earth
5. They can use the direction of the sun to aid in migration.
Just like birds, monarchs, and salmon, some species of salamander migrate to a breeding pond. Using their ability to see polarized light, they can tell the direction of the sun and use it as a compass to return to the same waterbody to breed every year.
6. The fire salamander can live up to 50 years in captivity.
Generally, fire salamanders make low-maintenance pets that live 10-15 years; however, there have been cases where individuals have lived up to 50 years in captivity. If you’re into long-term pets, this might be the right one for you.
7. Fire salamanders can spray a neurotoxin that causes temporary blindness.
With glands filled with samandarine neurotoxin along their back, fire salamanders have the ability to spray the toxin from their rear as far as 15 ft while controlling the direction of the spray. Yeah…you might want to re-think having one as a pet.
Image credit: University of Wisconsin – La Crosse
8. Cave salamanders can detect the earth’s magnetic field.
Perhaps one of the positive outcomes of having poor eyesight, as cave salamanders do, is that other senses have the opportunity to be heightened. These salamanders sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it to help them with navigation. This comes especially in handy if needed for migration to a breeding ground.
Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
9. Not all species are amphibious.
Salamander species can be wholly terrestrial, wholly aquatic, or amphibious. The larvae of wholly terrestrial species develop entirely in the egg and look like tiny adults when they hatch. Wholly aquatic species retain larval structures, such as gills, into their adulthood. Amphibious species spend their adulthood on land and lay eggs in the water. After the eggs hatch, the larvae remain aquatic until they undergo metamorphosis and become efts, or juveniles, that can crawl onto land.
Image credit: Gary Nafis, Californiaherps.com
10. The presence of salamanders can tell us about the state of an ecosystem.
Indicator species serve as a gauge for ecosystem health and can give humans cues to environmental changes. Because salamanders, along with other amphibians, respire through their skin they are sensitive to changes in air and water quality. By looking at their abundance, we can discern whether or not trouble is brewing in an ecosystem.
Image credit: Betsie Rothermel/Archbold Biological Station