10 Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is it true that a salamander can regrow its legs?
Yes! Salamanders are the only vertebrate (animal with a backbone) that can regrow legs, but only certain species have this ability. Red-spotted newts and axolotl salamanders can even regrow parts of their eye or brain. Because of this, they are important models for human medical research.
2. What is a salamander?
A salamander is an amphibian. This group of species also includes frogs and the lesser known caecilians. Because amphibians breath through their skin, they generally need to stay in moist environments. Of course, like everything else in the natural world, there are bizarre exceptions like the crucifix toad.
3. Is a salamander a type of lizard?
No! Salamanders are amphibians. They are much more closely related to frogs than to lizards.
4. What’s the difference between a salamander and a newt?
A newt is a type of salamander with 3 distinct life stages: larva, juvenile (or eft), and adult. Newts spend their larval stage in water, move to land as juveniles, and return to water as adults.
5. Where do salamanders live?
Everywhere! Even though salamanders need to stay moist to survive, they manage to live underground, in the water, on land, and even in the air – sort of. The wandering salamander has been found nearly 300 feet above ground in the canopy of redwood trees.
6. When did salamanders first appear on earth?
Amphibians have been on the earth for 360 million years, long before the first dinosaurs. They are descended from fish and gave rise to reptiles, thus representing the transition of life from water to land. Salamanders diverged (became different from) other amphibians about 200 million years ago. By comparison, giant pandas first appeared 6 million years ago, and humans evolved about 200,000 years ago.
7. What are the threats facing salamanders?
Salamanders in the U.S. are threatened by pollution, stream erosion, residential development, energy development, invasive species and disease. Because many salamanders depend on wet or moist environments, and many species are adapted to live on cool mountaintops, climate change is considered the biggest threat facing these amphibians.
8. Which country contains the most salamanders?
The United States! Our country is home to 174 salamander species, almost half of which live in the Appalachian region. But there may be even more species waiting to be discovered. In 2007, biologists discovered the tiny, patch-nosed salamander in northern Georgia.
9. Why should I care about salamanders?
Salamanders need the same thing that we do – clean, unpolluted water. In the Appalachian region, many salamanders live in the small mountain streams that ultimately feed our drinking water supplies. If pollution threatens salamanders on mountaintops, humans are going to be in trouble downstream. And, in fact, we are already in trouble. Over the last decade, safe drinking water violations have occured in every state in the nation. Since 2004, the drinking water provided to more than 49 million Americans has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or uranium, as well as disease-causing bacteria. It is estimated that as many as 19 million Americans become ill each year from the bacteria, parasites and viruses in drinking water. Certain types of cancer (including breast and prostate) have become more common in the past 30 years and are linked to drinking water contamination.
In addition to serving as an indicator of environmental health, salamanders play important roles in the forests and streams in which they live. In some forests, salamanders are so common that they outnumber any other predator (among animals with a backbone). Because of their massive numbers, salamanders are a key link in the food chain and serve as a nutrient “savings account” for the forest.
Finally, given their incredible ability to regrow body parts, salamanders are important models for human medical research.
10. How can I help salamanders?
- Wherever you live, properly dispose of your hazardous waste (including pesticides, motor oil, pharmaceutical medicines, and camper sewage). Guidelines for responsible waste disposal can be found at the EPA’s website.
- When possible, use sand instead of road salt. Rain and snowmelt washes road salt into nearby streams and ponds. Salt can be toxic to amphibians because of their porous skin and their need to stay hydrated.
- Estimate your carbon footprint and then try to make it smaller. Encourage others to do the same – climate change is considered the main threat facing Appalachian salamanders!
- Support salamander research at the National Zoo and its partner institutions!