The spotted salamander, a dragon in the undergrowth

Legendary, known to all, the spotted salamander is found on rare occasions. On rainy evenings they come out, sometimes by the dozen, on the paths, at the edge of the fountains, in the garden. Then return to their underground, secret life. Let’s explore the unusual world of Salamanders.

Spotted salamander
Spotted salamander

A miniature dragon in the undergrowth?

Its body of about fifteen centimeters rests on four short legs, and extends with a round, slender tail. Its colors, a shiny black sprinkled with yellow, allow it to be recognized unequivocally. Its head has two large black eyes suitable for night and twilight vision, followed by two protuberances, the typical parotoid glands. Its allure is almost reptilian, yet the Spotted salamander, Salamander salamander, belongs to the class of Amphibians, vertebrates leading a double life, terrestrial for adults, aquatic for young people. Alongside newts, provided with a flat tail, it joins the order of Urodeles, Frogs and Toads classifying them among the Anurans.

Adult life far from water

Surprisingly, for Amphibians, Salamanders spend their adult life far from the aquatic environment, more like humidity. They hibernate in the colder months, under stones, old stumps, borrowing old rodent burrows. They rest during the summer heat, seeking freshness in their underground caches. They hunt at dusk, at night, some snails, insects, lombrics, centipede, spiders, caterpillars, cloportes… Prey of all sizes, held in their powerful jaws before being swallowed.

And in their life cycle, even the mating season remains earthly.

Males and females, land encounters

From the end of hibernation, at the beginning of March, until September, the mating season will take place, entirely terrestrial. Favoring the month of July, males from the age of 2, 3 years looking for a female. They make contact with their heads resting on their back. If the moment is right, the male slips under his partner, lifts her slightly, holds her with a grip between the front legs. Fertilization is internal. Then follows for the female a long gestation, several months. Eight in total. At the end of which it will finally return to the aquatic environment, for its young to develop.

Small salamanders long protected

The long gestation of the Salamander allows it to protect its eggs and give birth to already formed larvae. After a migration towards a stream, a pond, a fountain, an active cave, it partially submerges … And releases about twenty larvae 2 to 3 cm long; the most robust will go up to 60 … Sharing the same habitat, the Red frogs, Common toads, Tritons alpestres, have not adopted the same reproduction strategy, and to compensate for predation lay hundreds, thousands of eggs. In the Salamander from birth the larvae are autonomous.

Perennial larvae

The lively little larvae spin on their four legs, waving with their long, flat tails. They are noticed by their external gills finely branched, the pale patch marking the base of their legs. Discreet, rather greyish, they hide in crevices, under stones, between roots, trying to dodge formidable predators, carnivorous insects, birds, aquatic shrews, trout in deeper waters … And larvae of Salamanders more big than them. Carnivores, they hunt mosquito larvae, ephemeral, gammares, and become cannibals if necessary. After 4 months of this diet, and several moults, the young Salamanders come out of the water, for a long terrestrial life of several decades.

A long, long life

The longevity of Salamanders is exceptional, 30 years in a natural environment, up to 50 in captivity. Their absence of predators is one of the causes. Some have risked it, but they will no longer forget its yellow and black colors. Nor its poisonous venom, secreted by the parotoid glands and the warty protuberances arranged in a line all along his body. This venom, a dangerous alkaloid, is an aggressive neurotoxicant for the mucous membranes, mouth and eyes. On the epidermis, human skin, it can create irritation. For Salamanders, the protection is long lasting, especially as it is complemented by an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial action.

Many subspecies

If Spotted Salamanders are distributed in all of Europe, we cannot find 2 similar, their coloring varying considerably and being specific to each individual.

On the other hand, depending on the habitat, we can recognize around ten subspecies.

  • Salamandra salamandra terrestris, widespread in France, has two parallel bands of yellow spots, sometimes in a continuous line;

  • Salamander salamandra salamandra, from the massif of the Alps, Carpathians, Balkans, presents small pits;

  • Salamander salamandra fastuosa lives in the central Pyrenees, Cantabrian Mountains, at home the yellow predominates, in long and broad lines;

  • Salamander salamandra bechkovi will meet in Bulgaria;

  • Salamander salamandra crespoi, bejarae and almanzoris will be distributed in Spain. Among all these subspecies, some have had to adapt to difficult climatic conditions.

The subspecies of Spain

Confronted with heat and drought, Salamanders from southern Europe no longer hibernate in winter, but in summer, burying itself in cool, damp caches in the warmer months. Their adaptation also involves the protection of the little ones.

The sub-species Salamander salamander bernardezi, in the North-West of Spain, will give birth to young Salamanders already trained, equipped with lungs, around twenty on average.

In Portugal and North West Spain, Salamandra salamandra gallaica, can return to the water to deposit its larvae there, but also prolong its gestation, wait until the larvae have finished their internal development, protecting them and thus freeing themselves from the constraints of the aquatic environment.

Mountain species

The Spotted Salamander also has some European cousins ​​adapted not to heat, but to cold. The Black salamander, Salamandra atra, lives in the mountains in the Alps. Black, rarely stained with yellow, thin, not very tall, it lives in beech groves, seeks clearings and edges. It will be found in alpine lawns if screes and caches allow it to protect itself during the day and to hibernate in winter. Up in the mountains, the beautiful season is short, the black salamander has opted for maximum protection for its young. She will keep them in her throughout their development, from egg to young Salamander. Gestation can thus last 2 to 3 years depending on the altitude, then only 2 young Salamanders will be born, already large, 4 to 5 cm, autonomous and resistant.

Human legends

Fascinating, mysterious, the Salamander is at the heart of many legends . She has a strange relationship with fire, capable of crossing it, being reborn, or even extinguishing it. Where does his magical powers come from? Of its invincibility, of its venom, linked to its black and gold colors? From its habitat, when it emerges from under the stones of a hearth, from a half-burnt log? Or its appearance, closer to a dragon than a frog? And does its ability to regenerate certain parts of its body, its exceptional longevity, also contribute to giving it a special place in our imagination?

The Spotted Salamander and its many subspecies are widespread in France and throughout Europe. They have adapted to various habitats, even approaching human dwellings offering favorable conditions. But some regions are still seeing their populations regress, in Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées, Pas-de-Calais, Picardy, they are classified on the IUCN Red List as near threatened species.

Source: Au Jardin, conseils en jardinage by

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