Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) Salamandra Común

Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) Salamandra Común

  • Scientific: Salamandra salamandra (Linnaeus, 1758)
  • English: Fire Salamander
  • Spanish: Salamandra común
  • Portuguese: Salamandra-comum
  • Distribution: Mainly northern, western and southern Spain (excluded from many of the central and eastern areas), all of Portugal, as well as northern Europe as far as north Germany, all of Italy and much of the Balkans and eastern Europe.

The fire salamander is so striking in appearance that in Iberia it cannot be mistaken for anything else, at least in its usual glossy coloration of yellow on an overall black background. There are many variations on this colour scheme (see the subspecies accounts below).

The head is wide and somewhat flattened, the snout short and either rounded or tapering to a point. Gland openings (the so-called parotids) are present behind each eye in a kidney-shaped arrangement, and along each side of the vertebral column is a further row of pores, with another row of glandular protuberances running along each side of the body. The throat has a sort of pleat (the gular fold).

Adult fire salamanders can reach an average of 20cm length, although a maximum of 25 cm (S. s. crespoi) is known. The tail makes up half or less the total length. They are somewhat more solid in appearance than newts. The female tends to be the larger, while males have a somewhat more swollen cloaca (the anal and reproductive aperture where the tail joins the body).

The species is found in northern areas of Spain and Portugal including Catalonia, Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, Castilla y León, Galicia and the Pyrenees, where they are present up to 2,400m.

Although widespread across Europe, the fire salamander does have certain habitat preferences. High temperatures and dryness are both avoided, so that the central Iberian populations are found in the cooler mountain areas rather than at sea level. In fact temperatures of over 70 deg F (20 deg Celsius) can be fatal to fire salamanders, which although they cannot swim very well, will take to a comfortable level of water in order to stay cool enough for survival.

In the north of Spain they commonly found in moist deciduous forests, and in some areas may live underground. Some Catalonian populations were reported in caves systems at about 100m depth so it is not unknown for salamanders generally to live in caves or similar subterranean locations such as cellars or old mines. Other than this, Spanish fire salamanders may be found in Mediterranean woodland, scrub or among rocks around lakes.

Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) Salamandra Común
Fire Salamander (Salamandra longirostris) Salamandra Común (photo taken in Cádiz province

The key factor is that they are never far from water as their lifecycle is dependant on it.

Like toads, fire salamanders can deter predators by secreting or even squirting a white noxious substance from the parotid glands on top of the head. The bright yellow and black coloration is in fact a warning to predators that the creature can be noxious. A recent German study concluded, however, that the main purpose of the toxins in fire salamanders was to protect the skin against infection and micro organisms.

Patterns of activity vary with location and altitude. In lowland Galicia the fire salamander is active most of the year except for coldest winter, whereas in the Pyrenees it is limited to the months of February or March until October or November. Fire salamanders are largely nocturnal, leaving their hiding places when darkness falls and only returning at daybreak. However they can also be found occasionally in the daytime after and during rainfall. Although they prefer coolness, if the temperature drops below 5 deg C they tend to remain in their refuges.

Diet

Their diet is not particularly remarkable, consisting mainly of insects, gastropods (snails and slugs), aquatic worms, centipedes and spiders. Their sedentary lifestyle does not require a great deal of food, and the salamanders tend to remain within a fairly modest sized territory for all of their adult life, the main exception being when females travel to water sources to give birth, after which they return.

For the winter S. salamandra either buries itself under soil and leaves or takes refuge in underground locations.

Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) Salamandra Común
Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) Salamandra Común

Breeding

Courtship takes place in April to May during the night. The male carries the female around on his back for a while and then deposits a spermatophore, essentially a packet of sperm, which the female then lowers herself onto. This can be retained for a long time, being effective up to 18 months after being received.

Usually the birth of the larvae takes place 6-9 months later into water, but there are variations on this theme. Whereas most subspecies usually produce anything from 8-70 small greyish larvae (2½-3½cm long), in a few cases eggs are laid, while S. s. bernadezi and S. s. fastuosa may bring much fewer (2-8) but fully-developed and metamorphosed individuals into the world. Metamorphosis of larvae not born in this manner is also very variable, from 2 weeks to 2 years, depending on subspecies, location, temperatures and food availability.

Sexual maturity is reached in 2-4 years.

Lifespan

Despite their fragility to heat, Fire Salamanders can be long-lived. A 1969 paper recorded a northern individual that had been kept in captivity for 43 years in Germany. Another source suggests that in the wild upward of 20 years may be normal.

Threats

Although abundant in much of Europe, the fire salamander faces the same conservation challenges as many other amphibians, namely the pollution or disappearance of water sources and degradation of its habitat in lowland areas, eg the replacement of natural woodland by spruce monoculture in some countries.

Climate change and an increase in average temperatures will also adversely affect this species, which is quite sensitive to heat.

Because of their defensive behaviour they are less subject to predation than many other amphibians, but even so are preyed upon by some birds, mammals and snakes, including the hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) and Seoane’s Viper (Vipera seoanei).

Subspecies distribution

Geographic location is the key to identifying the subspecies of Salamandra salamandra
  • Salamandra alfredschmidti is rather an odd one out, having overall dirty yellow or brownish patterns and tending to lack or have greatly reduced stripes. It is also smaller than most subspecies. It is currently only known from the Rio Tendi and Marea valleys in Asturias, and was only described in 2006.
  • Salamandra almanzoris is another small subspecies found only among the glaciers and mountains of the Sierra de Gredos. The yellow markings are sparse or almost absent, and the tail rather laterally compressed, particularly in the females. Its lifestyle is more aquatic than other subspecies.
  • Salamandra bejarae is found in central Iberia including Salamanca and the Toledo mountains, but is absent from the Sierra de Gredos. The yellow appears to take the form of isolated patches rather than being joined up. Spots may be partially reddish or brownish.
  • Salamandra bernadezi is the subspecies found in Asturias and north and east Galicia. Coloration is variable, but two schemes are notable: either the yellow is so prominent that the black is reduced to a broad dorsal and lateral stripe, or else the body is totally black and the head a bronze colour. Joined up spots may also be red. At least some of this subspecies give birth to fully metamorphosed live young (see Breeding above).
  • Salamandra gallaica is distributed across most of Portugal and also in Galicia, León, Catalonia and the Cantabrian mountains. There are several colour phases, some of which have wine-red markings on the body, especially near the head, while the spots are generally dull.
  • Salamandra crespoi replaces S. s. gallaica in the extreme south of Portugal ( the Algarve) and is distinguished by having rather finer markings consisting of many small jagged spots, plus relatively shorter limbs but a larger overall size.
  • Salamandra fastuosa is found in northern Spain and the Pyrenees. The yellow pattern takes the form of two dorsal longitudinal stripes running from the top of the eyes to the tip of the tail, plus two yellow stripes running along the edge of the belly and a number of bars or hoops on the limbs.
  • Salamandra hispanica is known only from the Montseny area of Barcelona, and may in fact be simply a variation of a non-Iberian subspecies, S. s. terrestris, which is found in adjacent France and northern Europe. The patterning of both is yellow patches (not joined) on a black background.
  • Salamandra longirostris is distinguished mainly by its rather triangular and pointed snout. It is distributed across Cadiz and Malaga in the far south of Spain. Usually it has a spot over each eye and one over each parietal gland in addition to others on the rest of the body.
  • Salamandra morenica is found in the Sierra Morena mountains of southern Spain and Portugal. The markings are more rounded and not elongated or joined, with wine-red coloration mostly on the head.

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