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Are salamanders lizards?

November 15, 2005


Great question! Though salamanders are sometimes called “spring lizards,” they’re not really lizards. Lizards are reptiles and salamanders are amphibians. Both are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, but that’s another column.


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

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


Salamanders come in all sizes, but most measure only a few inches. The two-toed amphiuma, however, is a different animal. This “giant” aquatic salamander resembles an eel, has two small front legs, and can reach lengths of nearly four feet! The pigmy salamander, on the other hand, measures a mere 1-2 inches in length.



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


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


Salamanders are known as an “indicator species,” meaning if they are healthy their environment is healthy. This is because they have permeable skin, which permits the absorption of air, water and pollutants. If toxins are absorbed, they are stored and concentrated in fatty tissues.


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.