Salamanders are amazing creatures. They are able to regrow their limbs and tail, and in some cases, can even throw their tail to distract a predator and escape. Most lay eggs in vernal pools, which hatch into larvae and eventually grow into terrestrial salamanders. There are a few exceptions and variations to this life cycle in our local species.
Salamander eggs can be differentiated from those of frogs and toads because they are encased in another layer of jelly, whereas frogs’ eggs are just a mass of eggs, and toads’ eggs are laid in a string formation.
Our salamanders can usually be found either under decaying logs or under rocks in streams, depending on the species.
Lungless salamanders breathe through their skin. They are typically thinner than their chunky mole salamander cousins, and prefer forest and stream habitats.
Eastern Red-Backed Salamander
The red-backed salamander is the most common vertebrate in forests in the Northeast US. If you find a salamander in your log pile or under a pot in your yard, it is most likely a red-backed salamander. They come in two common forms. One is as the name suggests–it sports a reddish-brown stripe down its back. Sometimes the stripe varies, and can be a light orange or even silvery color. We also seem to have a fairly high percentage of what is called lead phase or lead morph red-backed salamanders here in Westchester. These are a dark grey all over, with light speckles, and no stripe.
The red-backed salamander lays eggs on land, which hatch into tiny versions of their parents, with no larval stage.
Four-toed salamanders are the smallest salamanders found in Westchester County. Most salamanders have five toes on their hind feet; their four toes got them their name. At first glance, they may resemble the red-backed salamander, unless they are flipped over when you find them. Sometimes they react to potential predators by curling up on their back and showing their belly–bright white with black spots.
Like many salamanders, they live in forests but require wetlands for breeding. Unlike others, however, four-toed salamanders prefer to lay their eggs in moss overhanging swamps or still pools so that the hatching larvae drop into the water. They mate in the fall, with the female collecting spermatophores and depositing them into her cloaca. The females lay eggs months later, between February and June, depending on when it begins to get warmer. After that lengthy process, four-toed salamander larvae spend only 20-40 days in the water before metamorphosis.
Northern Dusky Salamander
There are varieties of dusky salamander throughout the United States. We have the northern dusky, which has highly variable markings. It comes in a range of browns and greys with subtle mottling and sometimes stripes and spots. It is slightly thicker than the red-backed salamander and much larger than the four-toed salamander, its two closest lookalikes.
They like to hang out on the sides of streams, particularly when looking for food, but can be found on the forest floor as well.
Northern Two-Lined Salamander
The two-lined salamander is a stream-dwelling salamander, often found under rocks in small bodies of moving water, though they may venture out to surrounding forest areas. They are long, slender and quick.
Their coloring can range from yellow to brown, with two dark lines running along its back, with varied degrees of spotting.
Two-lined salamanders breed in the water, and the larvae typically take two years to mature.
Mole salamanders burrow underground or use tunnels made by other creatures. They spend most of their adult lives underground, coming out primarily to breed.
Spotted salamanders are the largest salamanders we have locally. Adults can grow up to nine inches long, and they are much stockier than lungless salamanders like the red-spotted and four-toed. Typically I encounter specimens that are closer to 4 or 5 inches long, still sporting that big head and wide body. They have two rows of yellow or orange spots on a black or grey background, with a paler belly.
Like other mole salamanders, they live primarily underground, but seem to be more commonly found under rotting logs than other local mole salamander species.
In early spring, on warmish rainy nights, spotted salamanders come out en masse to migrate to vernal pools for breeding. You can help them along!
Jefferson/Blue-Spotted Salamander Complex
Ambystoma jeffersonianum x laterale
Species of Special Concern in New York State
The Jefferson salamander and the blue-spotted salamander are two related species that have interbred. Even those that look more like one or the other need to be tested in a lab to get a reliable ID, and all are considered part of the complex here in southern New York.
Jefferson/blue-spotted salamanders are grey to black, usually having some small bluish spots, particularly on the sides. These may also be found migrating in early spring rains.
Species of Special Concern in New York State
The elusive marbled salamander really doesn’t seem to come out from underground except to breed. They actually lay eggs in the fall, in low areas that will fill with water when it rains. This gives marbled salamander larvae a head start, and they will feed on other salamanders’ eggs and smaller larvae in the spring if given the chance.
Marbled salamanders have black or dark grey bodies with white or silvery splotches or bands. These salamanders are sexually dimorphic–males have white markings and females have silver.
Notophthalmus v. viridescens
The Eastern Newt (aka Red-Spotted Newt) has a wild, open-ended sort of life cycle. Typically they start out like other amphibians–eggs in the water, larvae, and then a juvenile terrestrial form. This is a beautiful orange creature called a red eft, a form which they keep for several years. It looks just like a salamander, but its skin is drier and rougher. Then they usually mature back into an aquatic adult form, but not always. I have heard that they may also revert back to a red eft if necessary.
The aquatic adults have an olive green skin tone, but retain the red spots on the back.