Are salamanders lizards?

November 2005

Great question! Though salamanders are sometimes called “spring lizards,” they’re not really lizards. Lizards are reptiles and salamanders are amphibians. Both are cold-blooded, or ectothermic, meaning their body temperature is regulated by external sources like sunlight for warmth or shady areas for cooling.

Peat moss clings to the lip and tail of this marbled salamander, a common species in North Carolina. (Photo by John Mauser)

North Carolina has seven families of salamanders, which amounts to about 50 species. This is due in large part to our varied terrain – from cool mountainous areas to humid coastal swamps.

Salamanders belong to the order Caudata. They live in both wet and dry areas and all require water. These secretive amphibians are usually nocturnal and can be found nestled under rocks and fallen trees, especially after rains, and in streams and creeks.

Quick and often colorful, salamanders come in all sizes, but most measure only a few inches. The two-toed amphiuma, however, is a different story. This “giant” aquatic salamander resembles an eel, has two small front legs and can reach lengths of nearly 4 feet! The pigmy salamander, on the other hand, measures a mere inch or 2 in length.

Most salamanders in North Carolina are “lungless.” Instead of lungs, they absorb oxygen through blood vessels in the skin and the lining of the mouth. The skin is very sensitive and must remain moist.

Salamanders are known as an “indicator species.” This is because they have permeable skin which absorbs air, water and pollutants. If toxins are present, they are absorbed and concentrated in the salamander’s fatty tissues. A healthy salamander population indicates a healthy environment.

If you pick up a salamander for closer inspection, make sure your hands are moist and free of lotions and other chemicals, like bug spray and sun screen. Always return the animal to where you found it and never remove it from its natural habitat.