Salamanders: their natural history and our research

Salamanders belong to the Caudata order. Along with Anura (frogs) and Gymnophiona (caecilians), they belong to the Amphibian group (Bishop 1943). Salamanders are often confused with lizards because of their similar body form but they lack scales. Instead salamanders have moist glandular skin that is permeable to water and unlike frogs, they have tails and teeth in both jaws (Bishop 1943). They rely on moisture to survive and can disappear when there is no rainfall (Bishop 1943).

The three salamanders found in the Morgan Arboretum are the blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), and the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus). The red-spotted newt lays its eggs in water and spends its adult life in water but juveniles, called “red efts” can be found on land. On the other hand the red-backed and blue-spotted salamanders are terrestrial and lays egg in damp logs (Bishop 1943). The red-backed salamander has two color polymorphisms. Typically a red-dorsal stripe is present but without, it is called the lead-back phase. Predators are more likely to attack the lead-back phase. (Davis 2010).

Lead back phase (L) and red back phase (R) of the red back salamander

Lead back phase (L) and red back phase (R) of the red back salamander

Distribution and habitat

There are only two continents on which salamanders do not occur: Antarctica and Australia. Most species of salamanders are found in North and South America. Indeed, eight of the nine families of salamanders are found in North America and four of these families (Proteidae, Ambystomatidae, Salamandridae, Plethodontidae) occur in Canada (Aartse-Turyn M. et al).

We have twenty-one native species in Canada and ten of them are found in the province of Québec (Gorham and Cook; Redpath museum). Usually, they are found under logs or rocks in the forest and aquatic species are found at the bottom of streams and ponds under stones and detritus (Aartse-Turyn M. et al). Research has shown that management of the forest, vegetation and landscape characteristics are factors that influence the distribution of salamanders (Harper A. and Guynn D 1999). As salamanders need high amounts of calcium they prefer habitats where deciduous trees can be found (Harper A. and Guynn D 1999).

Red spotted newt

Red spotted newt


Depending on their size, salamanders feed on arthropods, gastropods, earthworms or even tadpoles and smaller salamanders (Gorham and Cook). However, as previously mentioned, salamanders need high amounts of calcium which is why they prey mostly on small scavengers such a snails (Harper A. and Guynn D 1999).

Importance to Humans

Salamanders are crucial to humans both culturally and scientifically. Many wrongly neglect the cultural significance as proof of importance to humans because it doesn’t represent any economic or scientific value. Salamanders appear in many myths around the world and most associate them with fire. People believed that salamanders were born or created from fire because of their sudden appearance amid flames when a fire was lit. Many, including Pliny the Elder, also thought that their cold skin could extinguish fire and even that the skin and other parts gave protection against flames (Pliny the Elder, AD. 77-79). As a result of these beliefs, salamanders represented courage, passion, loyalty, etc and therefore were used as symbols in heraldry.

From a scientist’s point of view salamanders are key in understanding an extraordinary phenomena which would revolutionize medicine : limb regeneration. Indeed, salamanders are the highest order of animals capable of regenerating body parts, including their tails, upper and lower jaws, eyes and hearts (Conger, 2008). Research lead by Dr Goodwin, of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute has shown that this ability relies on their immune system (precisely their macrophage cells). It has been proven that most organisms (including humans) possess the potential of limb regeneration in their genes, but those genes are dormant due to evolution (Kotulak, 2006).

Red backed newt

Red backed newt

Our project

Research Question – What environmental indicators are correlated with the presence of salamanders in the Morgan Arboretum?

For our research project, we are sampling one area within the Morgan Arboretum where salamanders are known to occur. Our data collection method was relatively simple. We started at the same location each week and then walked 150 metres into the forest. From here, we walked in a randomly selected direction for 50 metres. A 10-metre x 10-metre quadrat was established in this location and then we flipped all the logs within the quadrat. Under each log we searched for salamanders and then measured environmental variables of the microhabitat such as temperature, soil moisture and amount of leaf litter.

Problems we’ve faced

Our original research question focused around the availability of suitable salamander habitat in the Morgan Arboretum, as we were unsure as to the likelihood of finding salamanders in our study site. We were thus inclined to study salamanders indirectly by looking at their likely distribution through the presence of suitable habitat. However, after our first visit to the Morgan Arboretum, during which we found eight salamanders in less than three hours, it became apparent that there were more salamanders in the Arboretum than we previously had thought. Therefore, we were able to study salamanders in a more direct way rather than simply looking at areas, which could be potential habitat for the amphibians. Consequently, we changed our research question to be more focused on the environmental conditions that were good predictors of the presence or absence of salamanders. By measuring the microhabitats under logs where there were/ were not salamanders allows us to compare the two scenarios to examine which factors are greatly correlated to salamander presence.

During our data collection, we are often faced with the challenge of flipping extremely heavy logs. Sometimes we succeed, yet sometimes we don’t. This means that we are sometimes not able to sample all the logs in our quadrats and may be underestimating the abundance of salamanders in the Arboretum. It is unclear how this will affect our results.

For more information on the amphibians found in the Morgan Arboretum:


Data collecting in the Arboretum

Data collecting in the Arboretum


Amphibians and reptiles of Quebec [Internet]. 1999. Montreal (Qc); Redpath museum (McGill University); [updated 1999 March; cited 2013 Oct 22]. Available from:http://redpath-museum.mcgill.ca/Qbp/herps/herps.html

Bishop, S.C. 1943. Handbook of Salamanders. Comstock Publishing Company, Inc., Ithaca, New York. Web.

Caudate families [Internet]. 2010. Place of publication not available ; Aartse-Turyn M., St. Laurent R., Macke J. and Williams J. ; [uptated 2010 April ; cited 2013 Oct 22]. Available from:http://www.caudata.org/cc/species/species.shtml

Conger, C. 2008. How can salamanders regrow body parts?

Davis, AK. 2010. ”Lead-phase and red-stripe color morphs of red-backed salamanders Plethodon cinereus differ in hematological stress indices: A consequence of differential predation pressure?” Current Zoology, 56, 238-243.

Gorham SW, Cook  FR. Salamander  [Internet].Canadian Encyclopedia ; [cited 2013 Oct 22] . Available from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/salamander”http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/salamander

Harper A. & Guynn D. 1999. “Factors influencing density and distribution within four forest types in the Southern Appalachian Mountains” Forest ecology and management, 114, 245-252

Kotulak, R. 2006. Research brings hop body parts can regrow. Knight Ridder Tribune Business News.

Pliny the Elder. AD 77–79. Naturalis Historia. (Book 10, 86)


About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

12 comments on “Salamanders: their natural history and our research

  1. Great stuff! I have also heard the legend of salamanders emerging from fires. I think what happens is that salamanders take refuge in old logs on the ground, people throw those logs on the fire and presto-the salamanders emerge to escape the heat.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write a comment… We deeply appreciate it! Yes that is what we understood too. It explains why salamanders were associated with fire in all legends world-wide ; they all did the same thing when fire was lit…RUN!

  3. Looks great! How long will you be conducting this research?

    • Thank you! We have actually already finished our data collecting and analysis. We collected data for 3 weeks each for about 3 hours (Oct 8, 15, and 22). Early October was still quite warm so we found more salamanders. The last data collecting day was cold so we did not find many salamanders that day. We did end up flipping over 60 logs! We also found that salamanders are found mostly in deciduous and mixed forests. The logs in which 3 salamanders were found also had a much larger volume than the logs with only 1 salamander.

  4. Thank you! Well actually we only conducted our research for a period of three weeks from the 7th October. That is all the time we were given. It would have been interesting to continue for longer even though we found fewer salamanders from week to week. We believe this is because they were preparing for winter by digging down into the soil. If we had to do it again we would start our research earlier on in the season.

    Thank you again for your comment!

  5. Awesome work! I never knew you could find mudpuppies in Canada-soo cool. In my experience, red backs are always easier to find because they are just under the log, while ambystomatids are more difficult often hiding in the leaf litter.
    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thank you very much! You’re right… out of the 19 salamanders we found, 17 were red backs. One of these was actually a lead back and if I’m not mistaken you helped us identify it! We also found 2 red spotted newts. So after all the only species we didn’t see was the blue spotted salamander but that was expected because we stayed in the forest and I understand that blue spotted salamanders like to be near a lot of water.

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  9. I have LOADS of salamanders – blue spotted, red-backed, and lead-backed – in my yard. I live in Laval, Québec, beside protected wetland. Before moving here, I didn’t even know Québec HAD salamanders.

    Unfortunately, at hatching season, like today, I find so many of them in my pool. Today, I saved 15 of them little buggers from dying in the salt water or being scooped up by the pool cleaner. It’s a bit complicated because you don’t want to squoosh them with the leaf scooper, but it’s worth the effort. In an effort to save as much as possible, I made it my morning and evening ritual to check the pool and the skimmer.

    I do have one question though. I thought they were semi-aquatic, living on both land and water, so to wash off the salt water, I have always put them down in my waterfall pond (it’s a koi pond without koi). Is that the right thing to do?

    I see by your article that the red-spotted salamanders are land-bodies, so now I am afraid I’ve been doing more harm than good.

    Can you let me know?

  10. Hey! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new
    initiative in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

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