What is a salamander? Is it a reptile or an amphibian? These are questions young scientists ask themselves when they discover their first salamanders. Many reptile enthusiasts recount their first reptile encounters as a young child with a frog, garter snake, or salamander. It is almost as simple as turning over a rock or log to find them! Salamanders are unique animals that are part of the Class Amphibia (amphibians). Members of this class are ectotherms, more commonly referred to as cold-blooded vertebrates. Salamanders lack feathers, scales, and hair, but have prominent tails and typically have four limbs. Amphibians play an important role in the ecosystem. Unfortunately, habitat loss, climate change, and pollution are among the many factors bringing many species of salamanders nearer to extinction. As reptile keepers for a conservation organization, our goal is to promote, educate, and inspire guests about the importance of salamanders and their ecosystems.
When you eat food, do you use a fork and a knife or do you use chopsticks? Did you know chopsticks and salamanders have something in common? The special kind of habitat that salamanders live in is also home to the sort of wood that is being utilized for disposable chopsticks! In recent times, up to 3.8 million trees are felled a year to supply the timber required for the production of these chopsticks. This is leading to an international problem of critical habitat loss for many animals. As demand for wooden chopsticks increases, areas such as the Appalachian Mountains are being looked at for logging. The Appalachian Mountains that run from Canada down to Alabama are actually home to 14 percent of all the salamander species in the world. Much like the use of reusable shopping bags, there is a greener choice; why not get yourself some reusable chopsticks?
Today there are 4,600 described amphibians worldwide, 535 of which are salamanders. In the United States, there are 127 species of salamanders, the majority of which are found in southeastern US. To many people’s surprise, San Diego, with its notably dry climate, is home to four species of salamanders: the arboreal salamander Aneides lugubris, the garden slender salamander Batrachoseps major major, and two species of Ensatina salamanders—Ensatina eschscholtzii eschscholtzii and Ensatina eschscholtzii klauberi.
Next time you are in your backyard or hiking the many trails in San Diego, take some time to look around the path, or under a few rocks or logs. You just might find some salamanders! But please be careful to watch for rattlesnakes. And always put back the rocks or logs back the way you found them, as they are used as homes by many species of animals, big and small. If you are exploring around Reptile Walk at the San Diego Zoo, make sure you stop by the Amphibian building and check out some of our salamanders on display!
Written by Jeremy Fontaine, Tommy Owens and Lawrie Arends, Reptile and Amphibian Keepers at the San Diego Zoo