Salamander Species of North America

North America is home to more than 150 salamander species which are important to the ecosystem.

| February/March 2007

Dang, I muttered under my breath. I’d approached the promising pool with a determined angler’s stealth, stalking upstream in the rocky shallows, then wading into the higher waters that veered past my target — a smooth patch of liquid tucked deep and still beneath limbs overhanging the far bank. If ever there was a place for a smart mountain trout to wait for food, I thought as I cast my line, this is it.

But now I was knee-deep at the pool’s edge, bending to retrieve the weighted fly that, instead of reaching its destination, had wrapped its line around a branch, drifted beneath the surface and wedged between rocks. Reaching into the clear water for the errant fly, I noticed a snakelike twitch of movement near my hand — which I quickly pulled away. Peering closer, I could make out … no, not a snake, but a fat-bodied, paddle-tailed, wedge-headed something at least a foot and a half long, its eyes barely slits, its mottled, pebble-colored skin subtly rippling. What the ... ? In that instant I realized that my question had answered itself: I was looking at a hellbender, one of our continent’s largest salamander species.

If you wouldn’t ordinarily picture a creature the size of your forearm when you think of a salamander, you’re not alone. Then again, you might not think of a squirming, eel-like organism either; or a blind cave dweller; or a bumpy, finger-size critter that can be deadly poisonous.

North American Salamanders

All of these unique life-forms, and many more, are North American salamanders. At least 150 salamander species live north of Mexico, more than in any other region on the planet. And while most of us have seen salamanders, few are aware of their extraordinary diversity. They range in size from the diminutive 2-inch pygmy salamander, found in spruce-fir Appalachian forests, to the 2- to 4-foot-long two-toed amphiuma, a ditch-dwelling Southeastern species that resembles an eel. And if you think salamanders are mostly gray or brown, think again: among them are some of nature’s most colorful creatures.

Most of us are similarly unaware of salamanders’ importance to the ecosystems around us. In many areas they’re a critical food source for a wide range of reptiles, fish, birds and mammals. In some mature forests, especially old growth areas, salamanders are so abundant they’re the predominant and most numerous vertebrate. Because many salamanders spend part of their lives as waterborne larvae and then move onto land, they serve as a vital nutrient transport system from wetlands to surrounding terrain, converting the aquatic organisms they consume as larvae into protein — their own body tissue — and then dispersing that energy as prey for land-dwelling creatures higher on the food chain. At the same time, salamanders consume substantial quantities of worms, snails, insects and other forest-floor invertebrates, influencing those populations and resulting rates of organic-matter decomposition and nutrient cycling.

Salamanders are amphibians and belong to the order Urodela, also called Caudata by some authorities. Both words are references — the first Greek-based, the second Latin — to the presence of a tail, which is the common denominator among all salamander species in all their life stages. Although they’re sometimes called “spring lizards,” salamanders are not lizards at all — lizards are reptiles, which have dry, scaly skin and clawed toes. Salamanders have smooth, moist skin and clawless toes.

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