Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Salamanders
Nature Bulletin No. 219-A   February 26, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Salamanders are queer silent secretive creatures rarely seen except by biologists, fishermen and small boys. The ancients believed that there were genii which lived in fire and that salamanders, their earthly form, could do likewise. So, today, asbestos is called "salamander wool"; a mass of slag in the hearth of a blast furnace is a "salamander"; another "salamander" is a metal plate, heated and held over pastry to brown it; and contractors use small metal stoves, called "salamanders", fired with coke to protect newly-built masonry from freezing.

Ordinarily, people think of the animal as a slimy dangerous lizard. But they are harmless, with smooth cool moist skins like frogs, and whereas a lizard is a reptile with a dry scaly skin that lives entirely on land, salamanders are amphibians. The word "amphibian", Greek in origin, means "double life. " Most salamanders, like frogs and toads, hatch from eggs laid in water. There they live as tadpoles breathing with gills until they transform into adults, develop lungs, lose their gills and come out on land. Unlike frogs and toads, they do not lose their tails and some kinds remain entirely aquatic. A few of the latter - - notably the Mud Puppy and the Siren -- never "grow up", and retain their gills throughout life.

Salamanders are predominately North American, especially in eastern United States where many species are common. The largest known species, found in China and Japan, attains a total length of five or six feet. Most of them live their "double lives" in deep woodlands where the adults hide under rocks, fallen logs and leaf mold, and lay their eggs in little ponds and streams. They have no voice, no ears, shun the sunlight and love moisture. Ten kinds have been found in the Chicago area and they include several curious exceptions to the typical life history of most salamanders.

The mud puppy, or Water Dog, is one of the largest, with an ugly chunky flattened body a foot or more in length when adult. They spend their entire lives in the water and retain their three large feathery gills on each side of the neck. They are very abundant in Lake Michigan and its tributary streams where they devour large quantities of many kinds of the smaller aquatic animals. Fishermen hate them as they do the Hellbender and the "Congo eel" found in the Mississippi, the Ohio, and their tributaries. These, too, are completely aquatic. The former gets to be two feet long. The "Congo eel" has lungs, lidless eyes like a snake, only two tiny legs, and gets to be 30 inches long.

The Siren, also permanently aquatic, has gills but is longer and slimmer than the mud puppy and has only two front legs. The Four- toed Salamander and the Two-lined Salamander have lungs and live on land as adults but seldom exceed three inches in length.

The Tiger Salamander, ranging from 7 to 10 inches in length when adult, is frequently found under rocks and logs where they feed on earthworms, insects, etc. They are shiny black or brownish with many large yellow spots. Their tadpoles have wide catfish-like heads and long feathery gills. The Newt is a small salamander that begins life as a tadpole and usually comes out on land in its first autumn, where it turns a bright red. After 3 or 4 years this "Red Eft" returns to water where it changes color again and remains. The Tiny Red-backed Salamander lays its eggs in rotten logs and apparently never enters water. Its tadpole stage is passed inside the egg, from which it emerges to live as an adult without gills and without lungs -- breathing through its skin.

No wonder the ancients got queer ideas about salamanders !

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