Range:

All continents except Antarctica and Australia

Habitat:

Ponds, swamps, streams, lakes, rivers, wet mountain forests, and grasslands

Is a newt a salamander?

Yes, but a salamander is not always a newt. Confused? The word "salamander" is the name for an entire group, or scientific order, of amphibians that have tails as adults. This includes animals commonly known as newts and sirens. Most of the animals in the salamander order look like a cross between a lizard and a frog. They have moist, smooth skin like frogs and long tails like lizards. The term "newt" is sometimes used for salamanders that spend most of each year living on land. The name "siren" is generally given to salamanders that have lungs as well as gills and never develop beyond the larval stage. Other names salamanders go by include olm, axolotl, spring lizard, water dog, mud puppy, hellbender, triton, and Congo eel. Whew!

From head to toes

Most salamanders are small, and few species are more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) long. Sirens have only two legs, but the other salamander species develop four legs as adults, with fleshy toes at the end of each foot. Some species, like paddle-tail newts, have fully webbed feet with very short toes for their aquatic lifestyle. Those that like to dig and are less aquatic, such as the tiger salamander, have no webbing at all on their feet.

A salamander’s hind legs grow more slowly than its front legs. (Frogs and toads are just the opposite: their hind legs grow more quickly than their front legs.) All four legs on a salamander are so short that its belly drags on the ground. The axolotl (pronounced AX oh la tul), a very unique species of salamander from Mexico, has the ability to regenerate missing limbs and has become very important to scientific study.

The exception to having legs is found with the sirens. They don’t have hind legs at all! Their long, strong tails are flat to help sirens swim like a fish, with the tail flapping from side to side.

Only two salamander species have small, pointed claws on their toes: the long-tailed clawed salamander and the Japanese clawed salamander.
The fire salamander is the only amphibian that does not hatch from an egg. Instead, the babies develop inside the mother’s body.
Salamanders can’t hear sounds, so they don’t make any either. However, some species can hug the ground to pick up sound vibrations with their body.
Tiger salamanders spend most of their time underground and are rarely seen except during their breeding season.
The Pacific giant salamander is the largest land salamander in North America. It can grow up to 14 inches (36 centimeters) long.
The large blotched salamander is really not large at all. This native Southern Californian is just 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 centimeters) long.
Male palmate newts develop webbed feet and a low crest along the back and tail during their breeding season.
Kaiser’s newt males undulate their tail to entice a mate, and a willing female responds in kind.

The San Diego Zoo’s Education Department has a group of reptile ambassadors that is seen by thousands of children a year through school assemblies, animal presentations, sleepovers, and summer, spring, and winter camps. Spot, a spotted salamander, is our only amphibian ambassador. He’s a slimy guy who makes kids—and even adults—giggle when they touch him. He is dark gray with yellow spots and has a good appetite for earthworms and crickets!

Other salamander species making their home at the Zoo are Kaiser's newts, California newts, and fire salamanders. We had our first reproductive success with Kaiser's newts in 2011! Our new Reptile Walk, which opened in July 2012, features brand-new amphibian exhibits, where our Kaiser’s newts can be admired.

People are the salamanders’ worst enemy. For example, the Chinese giant salamander is at critical risk; it is hunted illegally by humans for food, and its body parts are used in traditional Chinese medicines.

Humans continue to pollute and destroy wetland habitats where newts and salamanders live. Remember, these amphibians need water to survive. Filling in their ponds, using pesticides, and rerouting water for our own needs has caused declines in many salamander populations—more than 70 species are currently listed as being at critical risk! We all need to help conserve remaining habitats and provide new gardens and parks for these unique creatures.