Croaking science is a new way for student volunteers and scientist to explore what’s occurring in the world of Science. Croaking Science looks at science facts, new research or old debates which are inspired by or affect amphibians and reptiles, and then communicates this in layman’s language to a wider audience. The aim of the feature is to provide a platform for those starting their foray into the world of science communications as well as established scientists. We welcome any submissions from students and scientists. Please note that the views expressed in the articles are not those of the Froglife Trust.
New Croaking Sceince reporter Rhiannon Laubach looks at a relative of our newt species, the Common Salamander, and discusses its place in our myths and legends
The common salamander, or the fire salamander, is an amphibian, and is the largest member of the Salamandridae family. They usually range between 15 to 25cm in length while some can be greater than 30cm. They are a dramatic-looking amphibian having a black body with yellow or orange markings. This species (and its sub species) is found over most of Europe (an introduced species in Britain) but is threatened throughout its range.
Salamanders are commonly found in shaded areas in woods where they can hide under logs and in crevices. They are mostly active at night and hibernate throughout the winter. In captivity, they have been recorded as living up to 20 years of age. Salamanders often stay in a ‘home range’ and regularly return to the same spot each year to hibernate.
The salamander has two defences against predators. They secrete a neurotoxin from glands along their back, and this toxin can be sprayed at predators. The second defence is its bold black and yellow colouring, which acts as a warning to predators. The salamander’s diet consists of a mix of different invertebrate such as earthworms, slugs and beetles (Sydlowski 2000).
Salamanders reproduce on land. The fertilised eggs develop in the female for between 5 and 9 months (depending on the subspecies).Over a number of days the females give birth to between 5 and 60 hatched larvae in shallow bodies of water. Larvae will often cannibalise each other as well as hunting other prey (Clare, 2002).
Salamanders have always intrigued humans. Pliny the Elder (A first century Roman writer) describes it as “an animal like a lizard in shape with a body starred all over: it never comes out except during heavy showers and disappears the moment the weather becomes clear.” Another myth he recorded about the salamander is that the salamander can poison all the fruit on a tree by climbing over it. A different myth about the salamander is recorded in the medieval ‘Aberdeen Beastery’. It states that they can live in fire or can, alternatively, put a fire out. This could be because of the vivid colourations of the salamander. But possibly, if a salamander had hibernated inside wet, rotten logs and as these logs were put on the fire the salamanders had woken up and run away, this would give rise to the myth. These myths were accompanied by stylised images of the salamander where they look similar to serpents (Etheridge).
• Etheridge K., Reptiles and Amphibians in Art and Science Loathsome Beasts. Last accessed 7th Jan 2014.
• Clare, J. (2002). Salamandra: Fire and Alpine Salamanders. Available: Last accessed 7th Jan 2014.
• Sydlowski, R. (2000). “Salamandra salamandra” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed January 09, 2014