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General Information- Salamanders
Class Amphibia, Order Caudata

Spotted Salamander
Spotted Salamander
Ambystoma maculatum
Wyoming County, NY

    Salamanders as a group are moist skinned, four legged, damp habitat animals. There are approximately 380 species of salamanders on the planet, 18 of which are found in our range. Like all amphibians salamanders secrete chemicals from their skin. These secretions can be harmful to predators, toxic, or protect the salamander from desiccation in a dry environment. These compounds are responsible for the slimy feel of a salamander's skin. Many people have allergic reactions to handling salamanders. Mostly the toxins affect the mucous membranes in the nose and eyes. Always wash your hands after handling any amphibian.
    Lizards superficially represent salamanders and laymen often confuse the two. Lizards have dry skin covered with scales, toes that end in sharp claws, and an external ear opening found anterior to the neck. Throughout most of the range considered no lizards are found.
    All salamanders are carnivorous. The preferred food of most is invertebrates, although the Spring Salamander prefers other salamanders and all salamanders will eat almost anything that fits into their mouths.

The study of salamanders, as the study of all groups of life, requires one to learn the words specific to the group. Some of those words are listed below.

Spring Salamander
Spring Salmander
Gyrinophilus p. porphyriticus
Chemung County, NY

    Most salamanders are bisexual with both male and female representatives (there are some weird exceptions.) Although the specifics of the reproductive cycles may vary, many of the basics hold true throughout the order. Environmental factors stimulate breeding responses. These factors include increasing or decreasing photoperiod, warm rains, and temperature. Males and females of many species must wander far distances from their home territories to ponds or streams where they can breed. Other species breed on the forest floor or in places far removed from water. Ritualized courtship is performed where males and females utilize a series of movements before mating. This is especially true of the mole salamanders. These movements are very specific from one species to another and are thought to help the animal recognize whether its potential mate is of the correct species. After courtship the male and female of some species enter amplexus. This occurs when the male clasps his forelegs around the female and does not let go. The act of amplexus stimulates the female to accept the male as her mate. The male releases his grip and deposits a spermatophore on the substrate where the mating process is taking place. The female then picks up the spermatophore with her cloaca and holds it within her body. Fertilization takes place internally. Individual species have differently shaped spermatophores making hybridization difficult. If a female picks up a spermatophore of the wrong species it simply will not fit and fertilization does not take place.  After picking up a spermatophore the female begins laying her eggs. As an egg passes through the cloaca the spermatophore releases its sperm, thus fertilizing the egg internally. As the egg is released the female covers it with a jelly-like coating.
    In many species this entire process happens under water where the eggs hatch and tadpoles become adult salamanders. In other species, notably the genus Plethodon, the process takes place outside of the water and the tadpoles undergo the entire metamorphosis process inside of the egg. The young hatch as miniature forms of the adults. The major disadvantage to this technique is that a lot of yolk is required to provide energy to the developing young. As a result fewer eggs are produced and the females of many of these species guard the eggs so that none will be lost.
    Hellbenders are unique among our salamanders in that fertilization is external and no spermatophores are produced. Hellbenders reproduce in a manner similar to fish in that the males and females release their gametes into the water where the eggs and sperm will randomly find each other to begin fertilization.

Redback Salamander
Redback Salamander
Plethodon cinereus
Chemung County, NY

Salamanders are in the Class Amphibia, Order Caudata. There are 18 species of salamanders in our range representing 5 Families.

Family Cryptobranchidae- Giant Salamanders

The giant salamanders are identified as a group by the presence of internal gills and a slimy wrinkled skin. This group includes the monstrous Japanese Giant Salamander which obtains lengths of nearly five feet. The Eastern Hellbender is the largest salamander in North America, although the amphiumas of the south are longer.

Family Proteidae- Mudpuppies and Waterdogs

The waterdogs are characterized by large heads, slimy wrinkled skin, and external gills. They are neotenic and nocturnal.  Mudpuppies are totally aquatic and have a number of adaptions to help them better survive this habitat.  These adaptions include a powerful, keeled tail which helps the mudpuppy swim through the water.  Mudpuppies are large, but not nearly as large as the Hellbender.

Family Ambystomatidae- Mole Salamanders

This family got its name because of its members tendency to dig. In fact most of their lives are spent underground. They are large salamanders, and heavy bodied. The mole salamanders lack a naso-labial groove, unlike the lungless salamander group, and they have short blunt heads. They are dependent on a water source for breeding and often breed in the temporary ponds formed by spring rains. Their larvae are short, flat-headed, and have long bushy gills.

Family Salamandridae- Newts

The newts are characterized by a rough, dry skin. The newts actually lead a triple life. When the larvae of the Red-spotted Newt transform they enter the red eft stage. This form is terrestrial and the efts live on land for 1 to 3 years. The newt grows and transforms to the adult stage which spends most of its time in the water.

Family Plethodontidae- Lungless Salamanders

    This group is characterized by the lack of one feature- lungs. Respiration is accomplished through the damp skin and the roof of the mouth. They also have a naso-labial groove. These salamanders are typically deep forest or streamside salamanders. Larvae of many of the species metamorphosize inside of the egg while those of others metamorphosize in outside pools.
    Lungless salamanders are a very successful group with over 300 species worldwide.