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Wild About Illinois Salamanders!

Twenty species of salamanders occur in Illinois. Because of their secretive and mainly nocturnal habits, they are observed less often than our state's other amphibians, the frogs and toads. Terrestrial salamanders live in forests in underground burrows, in or under rotting logs, under rocks and leaves, and around springs and streams. They venture out of these places only at night or following heavy rainfall. Larvae and aquatic adults live in rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, swamps and ditches. Salamanders are predators of earthworms, snails and invertebrates. A few salamanders also eat small vertebrates, including other salamanders. In turn, they are consumed by a variety of fishes, small mammals, birds, snakes and invertebrates. Terrestrial salamanders use their thin skin for respiration, which requires that they live in moist surroundings. The chief conservation concerns for Illinois salamanders are habitat fragmentation and habitat loss.

Gallery by Family

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Amphibia (frogs, toads and salamanders) - Most of its members have four feet. Most amphibians must return to water to reproduce. The aquatic larval stage is the tadpole. Most amphibians must live in a moist environment. The skin and lungs are used for gas exchange in the adults while the larvae breathe with gills. Most amphibians produce toxins in the skin. Amphibians do not have scales, feathers or hair.
Order: Caudata (salamanders) - Salamanders may be found in fresh water and moist terrestrial areas worldwide. Their legs are set at right angles to their body, and the legs are short. The body is long and slender with a rounded snout. Both adult and larval salamanders have a tail. They can regenerate limbs and the tail if they are lost.
Family: Ambystomatidae - The “mole” salamanders spend much of the year in the soil or under rocks or logs. They breed in spring. Most larvae transform into the adult form by late summer.
      Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) [state threatened]
      blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale)
      spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
      marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum
      silvery salamander Biotype LJJ (formerly Ambystoma platineum) [state endangered]
      mole salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum)
      small-mouthed salamander (Ambystoma texanum)
      eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum)

Family: Cryptobranchidae - These giant salamanders may only be found in Asia and the United States. They are true aquatic salamanders.
      hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) [state endangered]

Family: Plethodontidae - The lungless salamanders may be found in North and South America and Europe. They do not have lungs, and most breathe through the skin or through membranes in the mouth. There is always a groove present from each nostril to the upper lip. They may be found in moist habitats.
      spotted dusky salamander (Desmognathus conanti) [state endangered]
      southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)
      long-tailed salamander (Eurycea longicauda)
      cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)
      four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) [state threatened]
      eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
      northern zigzag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis
      northern slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus

Family: Proteidae - The mudpuppies are found in Europe and North America. They are aquatic. They have permanent gills.
      mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) [state threatened]

Family: Salamandridae - The newts may be found in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Newts have rough skin.
      eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Family: Sirenidae - The sirens are found only in North America. They are aquatic. The have external gills and only the front legs are present.
      lesser siren (Siren intermedia)


Photo © Ronald A. Brandon

Long-tailed salamander showing the nasolabial groove and cirrus on the upper lip. Note also the costal grooves along the side. Like most salamanders it has four toes on the front foot.

Adult salamanders resemble lizards in general body form but have four toes on each of their front feet (versus five in lizards), and their soft skin is not covered with scales. Many salamanders may be recognized easily by distinctive traits or the number of legs or toes. The lesser siren, for example, lacks rear legs. The mudpuppy and four-toed salamander have four toes on each hind foot, whereas all other Illinois salamanders have five toes per hind foot. Nasolabial grooves are present in the eight species of the family Plethodontidae yet are absent in all other Illinois species. The eastern newt lacks the costal grooves that are easily seen on other salamanders.Male and female newts can be distinguished by their appearance, but it is difficult to tell the sexes apart in other salamanders except early in the breeding season. At this time, the female's body bulges with unlaid eggs. Males of some salamanders have secondary sexual features like enlarged cirri (genus Eurycea), mental glands (genus Plethodon), or enlarged cloacal glands (genus Ambystoma). Identifying larvae is challenging even to experts because the appearance of larvae changes constantly as they grow.

Even though most of our salamanders have lungs, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide for respiration occurs mainly through their skin. The skin is kept moist for this function by mucus secreted by skin glands. Eight Illinois species of salamanders (family Plethodontidae) lack lungs and rely entirely on the skin and mouth lining for gas exchange. Larval salamanders and the adults of the lesser siren and mudpuppy have external gills. Other skin glands release chemicals that coordinate reproductive behavior.

Illustration courtesy of and © James W. Petranka. No illustrations included within this information may be used on the internet, publications, or any other form of media without the illustrator's express permission. All rights reserved.

Pond-dwelling larva of the Jefferson salamander showing the gills, tail fins, and dorsal fin.

Life History

Photo © Ronald A. Brandon

Egg masses of the spotted salamander attached to an underwater twig. Developing eggs are surrounded by individual envelopes and enclosed in a mass of firm, jellylike material.

Most Illinois salamander species have a two-part life cycle that includes the gilled, aquatic larval stage and the terrestrial adult stage. Therefore, they have access to two habitats at different times in their lives. However, the adult mudpuppy and lesser siren spend their entire lives in lakes, ponds, permanent streams or swamps and never transform. Embryos of the terrestrial red-backed salamander, zigzag salamander and northern slimy salamander undergo direct development and have no larval stage. Rather, their eggs develop directly into tiny versions of the adults.

Courtship and egg-laying are annual events. Males and females of all but the hellbender engage in a distinctive courtship behavior during which sperm from spermatophores deposited by males are transferred to the cloaca of females. The sperm fertilize the eggs just before they are released to the environment. Females of most species lay their eggs in the spring, while the remainder deposit eggs in autumn. The eggs are placed in a variety of wet or moist places, such as: woodland ponds; under rocks in streams; under mosses, logs, rocks or leaves along streams or ponds; inside rotting logs; in underground burrows; in rock crevices; or in caves. In some species, adults care for the developing embryos. The adult may stay with the eggs to keep them moist (if on land) by curling its body around them, protect them from predators and remove dead and decomposing eggs. In other species, the jellylike egg masses are attached to plant stems and twigs in fish-free pools and left with no parental care. Development from embryo into larval form takes from two weeks to three months, depending on the species.

The eastern newt is peculiar because it goes through three distinct stages during its life: larva, eft and adult. Adult newts live in lakes and ponds, where the female lays numerous tiny eggs wrapped individually in leaves of underwater plants. The embryo completes development in about two weeks and hatches into an aquatic larva that feeds and grows for a few months, then transforms into the eft. This juvenile newt lives on land for one to three years before returning to water to complete its transformation to the adult form.

Adult and juvenile mole salamanders (family Ambystomatidae) live in rotting logs and burrow in the forest floor. They emerge at night or during heavy rain to feed, and, in spring and autumn, to migrate to breeding ponds. The terrestrial and streamside lungless salamanders (family Plethodontidae) are seldom active on the surface of the ground except at night, usually following rain. Because of their respiratory skins that can dry out quickly, these animals live under moist leaves, logs and rocks, or in burrows. Juveniles and adults of some species are common around springs (cave salamander, four-toed salamander, long-tailed salamander), banks of small, rocky streams (dusky salamander, southern two-lined salamander, long-tailed salamander), and in forest floor litter (red-backed salamander, zigzag salamander, northern slimy salamander). Many lungless salamanders seem to be territorial, with home ranges that they defend by posturing, chasing and biting other salamanders.


Photo © Ronald A. Brandon

Defensive posture the cave salamander assumes when attacked by a predator such as a bird. Note that the salamander closes its eyes and raises and wiggles its tail above its lowered head. A noxious skin secretion is released onto the surface of the tail.

Because salamanders can be an important food source for many reptiles, birds and mammals, it is not surprising that they have defense mechanisms to help them avoid predators. Most salamanders produce sticky, distasteful or poisonous skin secretions that deter these predators. The slimy salamander is well known for smearing attackers with a sticky secretion, and the large tail of the tiger salamander can flip harmful secretions onto a predator's face. Skin secretions of the eastern newt, especially the eft, induce vomiting in predators, which allows them to escape from a predator's digestive tract, if swallowed. Skin secretions may be reinforced by other defensive behaviors. For example, the red-backed salamander may assume a coiled, defensive posture that protects its head while presenting its tail and unpleasant skin secretions. The dusky salamander can run swiftly and leap to escape. The ability to lose its tail, either by constriction at the base of the tail (four-toed salamander) or by the long, easily-broken tail in species of Eurycea and Plethodon provides an edible distraction for the predator while allowing the salamander to escape. The tail may be completely regenerated within a year or two. Bright warning coloration, such as that of the long-tailed and cave salamanders, helps predators with color vision to associate the prey with the bad-tasting secretions and reminds predators to avoid these salamanders.


Six species of salamanders are listed as either state threatened or state endangered in Illinois as of 2015. Three of these species are at the edge of their geographical range and have never been very widespread in Illinois. The other three species have been greatly affected by habitat degradation and habitat loss. The endangered silvery salamander is peculiar. It is a triploid, all-female, pond-breeding species known in Illinois from only one natural population. Sperm are needed only to prompt the development of the eggs. In Illinois, the sperm are obtained from the small-mouthed salamander. The endangered spotted dusky salamander and the threatened Jefferson salamander occur in only two counties each in Illinois and are at the western edges of their ranges. The spotted dusky salamander inhabits small spring-fed streams and stream banks while the Jefferson salamander is a woodland species that migrates to small temporary or fish-free ponds to breed in the spring. The endangered hellbender, an aquatic species dependent on large, rocky streams, has been nearly extirpated by stream siltation. The threatened four-toed salamander once occurred nearly statewide but now is known from only eleven scattered counties where bits of suitable habitat remain. The threatened mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander with external gills. Although fairly common in Lake Michigan it has become rare in all other water bodies in the state.

The primary conservation concerns for Illinois salamanders are habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation and habitat loss. Many populations have been eliminated, reduced or separated through loss of habitat. Draining wetlands, channelizing streams, removing temporary woodland ponds and sloughs, and clearing forests have all contributed to the decline of salamander populations in Illinois. Individuals of three Illinois species (hellbender, lesser siren, mudpuppy) are completely aquatic, and three-fourths of the remaining species have a gilled, aquatic, larval stage. These species require high-quality waters to live in at some point in their life cycles.

Photo © Dr. Todd Pierson

The state-endangered spotted dusky salamander occurs in only two Illinois counties, where it lives along spring-fed headwater streams. Note the distinctive white line that extends from its eye to its lower jaw.


​aestivate - to be inactive in response to summer heat or scarcity of water 

cirrus; cirri (pl.) - slender elongations of the upper lip on some male salamanders, one hanging below each nostril at the bottom of the nasolabial groove

cloaca - common passage or cavity of the digestive, reproductive and excretory systems

cloacal glands - glands in the wall of the cloaca that function during reproduction

costal grooves - vertical creases on the outside body wall that correspond in location and number to the ribs

courtship - pattern of behavioral interactions between males and females during reproduction

direct development - development in terrestrial salamanders in which the hatchling resembles the adult in body form; no larval stage occurs

eft - immature terrestrial juvenile of the eastern newt

endangered species - a species in danger of becoming extinct within all or part of its range

extirpate - to exterminate from a part of a species' range

fragmentation - division into smaller sections that often have no connections

juvenile - individual that has not attained sexual maturity

larva; larvae (pl.) - aquatic, gilled, immature salamander

mental gland - cluster of glands on the chin of a male salamander, most noticeable during the breeding season

mucous (adj.); mucus (n.) - clear, watery, glandular secretion that covers the skin and keeps it moist

nasolabial grooves - in lungless salamanders, tiny grooves that extend from the nostrils to the lower edge of the upper lip, and onto the cirri if they are present

respiration (n.); - exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between an organism and the atmosphere
respiratory (adj.)

secondary sexual features - characteristics expressed during the breeding season, such as enlarged mental glands, cloacal glands and cirri in male salamanders

siltation - deposition of fine mineral particles (silt) on the beds of streams or lakes

spermatophore - small sperm-bearing structure produced in the male's cloaca and attached to some object or surface outside the body during courtship; used to make sperm available to the female

terrestrial - land-based, or living on land

tetrodotoxin - a chemical found in the skin of newts, it causes vomiting and may cause paralysis

threatened species - a species likely to become endangered

transform - in salamanders, to change from the larval form to the terrestrial form, which involves absorption of the gills and tail fin, and other changes

triploid - having three sets of chromosomes per cell instead of the usual two sets

Salamander Facts

​The mudpuppy and lesser siren spend their entire lives in water and never lose the gills, tail fins and gill slits that they developed as larvae.

Eight species of Illinois salamanders (family Plethodontidae) have no lungs and breathe mostly through the skin and lining of the mouth.

A constriction ring at the base of the four-toed salamander's tail allows this animal to detach the tail and distract a potential predator.

The smallest Illinois salamander is the four-toed salamander at a length of four inches (10 cm). The largest Illinois salamanders are the hellbender and lesser siren, each of which may attain a length of 18 inches (46 cm).

The female zigzag salamander guards her eggs for up to three months as the embryos develop. She usually does not eat anything during this time.

There are no male silvery salamanders. The females are triploid, having three sets of chromosomes per cell instead of the usual two sets. This species is the result of a hybridization between the Jefferson and blue-spotted salamanders.

The skin of the eastern newt contains powerful chemicals, including tetrodotoxin, that deter predators.

When disturbed, the red-backed salamander displays a defensive behavior in which it remains immobile, then curls into a tight coil with its head under its upraised tail.

If its pond or stream dries up, the lesser siren burrows deeply into bottom sediments, secretes a mucous "cocoon" around itself, and aestivates for several months until the pond fills again.


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