Fantastic Fire Salamanders – Salamandra salamandra

Slimy and sublime, but do they really “live in fire”?

Fire salamander head shot with view of parotoid glands. Photo by Didier Descouens.

Salamandra salamandra

The name European (or fire) salamander covers a number of salamander subspecies generally found in the mountain forests of western, central and southern Europe, although some populations can be found in North Africa and the Middle East.  There are 13 subspecies; all varying in colour, behaviour and adaptations, but generally fire salamanders are sturdy looking amphibians with a variety of yellow to orange markings on their back. Adults can grow up to a foot long and have been known to live for as long as 50 years in captivity, but ages of 30+ have been recorded in the wild!

Most of these secretive salamanders inhabit moist woodlands where they like to hide under rocks and logs and dig into the leaf litter. Although the adults are terrible swimmers they are never far from the freshwater streams and small pools in which they begin their lives.  Fire salamanders are most active at night, but can be found out and about on damp, overcast days; any time that you are likely to find slugs, worms and other goodies creeping about for hungry amphibians to snack on!  Salamanders catch their prey by sneaking up on an unsuspecting bug and firing their super-sticky tongue out… Gulp! Look at the video below for some fire salamander hunting behaviour.

Water babies

Like all amphibians, fire salamanders spend part of their lives in water. As adults they are poor swimmers, but their larvae need to spend the first 3 months in water (breathing through gills) before metamorphosing into tiny brightly coloured adults and leaving their aquatic birthplace.

Mating between male and female fire salamanders usually takes place in the cooler months, before the winter hibernation.  After blocking the female’s path and rubbing her with his chin the male plants a sticky spermatophore onto the ground and then sala-manhandles (sorry) the female until her cloaca is positioned over it. After fertilization the eggs develop internally.  When the eggs are ready to hatch into larvae, often in the following spring, the female will lay them directly into water where they will immediately hatch.  This process, called ovoviviparity, is common in many aquatic vertebrates, but a few sub-species of Fire salamander also give birth to live young – viviparity!

Creatures of habit, most fire salamanders return to the same cave, crevice or log every day and generally stick to foraging from this location. Some individuals have even been recorded using the same hibernation place for over 20 years! The actual distances that an individual salamander can range for food is quite large, on average around 500m².

Toxic to the touch

An animal which is fairly sluggish and confined to the ground, the fire salamander is vulnerable to predation from other vertebrates, but has a cunning adaptation to discourage being eaten. Upon closer inspection, the upper dermis of all subspecies of fire salamander is covered in small glands which secrete both protective mucus and a powerful neurotoxin.

The compound samadarine isolated from fire salamander skin secretion. Image from Wikipedia.

Two major alkaloids, samandarine and samandarone have been isolated from these skin secretions. These compounds are skin irritants and also disrupt the vertebrate nervous system causing hyperventilation and convulsions. Some species are capable of actively squirting this poisonous cocktail from the parotoid glands just behind the head.  The yellow and black warning colouration helps predators to identify the potential prey as toxic.

Fire salamanders and people

Despite Salamandra coming from the name for a mythical fire lizard, and their “fiery” colouring, the fire salamander would not survive any type of extreme heat.  It’s thought that the common name for these amphibians originates due to their sudden appearance from logs that have been collected for firewood, which is probably the only time that people normally encountered them.

With 13 subspecies distributed over such a large area, people and salamanders are bound to come in to contact with each other. Although currently designated as a species of “least concern” by the IUCN, fire salamanders are at threat from habitat loss, pollution and climate change.  For a species so dependent on cool, wet conditions long-term changes in weather patterns could influence the range of current salamander populations.  Perhaps their major disadvantage lies in the fact that comparatively little is known about many of the subspecies.  Some, such as Salamandra salamandra terrestris, are now commonly kept as pets so much of what we know about their behaviour has been recorded from captive populations.  But those subspecies found in more remote areas are poorly understood and therefore difficult to protect. There is also a tendency to focus only on the aquatic stage in conservation research, but the adult population is just as vulnerable to habitat change.

Fancy seeing a fire salamander in the flesh?  Head to your nearest zoo or wildlife park, they make great exhibits so most places will have them! Check out the video below for some more fire salamander action in their natural habitat.