Indiana home to slew of salamanders

We’re heading to the woods and creeks to talk a bit about salamanders in Indiana.

There are about 400 species worldwide, and we have 23 in Indiana (some sources say 25, but we’re going with Indiana DNR; they say 23).

There are five families of salamanders; Cyptobranchidae, Proteidae, Ambystomatidae, Salamandridae and Plethodontidae (now don’t you feel smarter?).

Out of the 23 species of salamanders in the state, we can count on seeing at least six of them around here. These would be the Mudpuppy, Smallmouth, Tiger, Southern Red Backed, Slimy and the Two Lined.

The Mudpuppy gets 8 to 13 inches long. It retains its gills throughout its life, never forming air-breathing lungs. The color runs from gray to rusty brown. It inhabits lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. When it comes to eating, it will dine on almost any aquatic animal — fish, fish eggs, crayfish and insects. The Mudpuppy is mostly nocturnal.

The Smallmouth Salamander gets up to 5½ inches long, being black or very dark brown in color. This one has a small head with a short snout. It breeds in late winter or early spring. The Smallmouths preferred home is under boards, logs or other debris near ponds or swamps or anywhere there is a lot of moisture in lowland forests. It prefers to live underground and eats insects, spiders, slugs and worms.

The Tiger Salamander will get close to 8 inches long and is brown to an olive or yellowish brown. It also is a winter or early spring breeder. This is the largest salamander to live on land (at least around here) and has four toes on the front feet and five on the hind feet. You can find this one in forests, marshy areas and grasslands.

Next is the Southern Red-backed. This fella grows from 3 to 4½ inches. Its body is a dark gray to black (the stripes down the back are either orange or reddish). It lives in forest areas and hides under rocks, moss and rotten logs. These salamanders do not spend time in the water; they have no lungs and breathe through their skin.

The Slimy Salamander grows from 4¾ to 6¾ inches, mostly black with silvery-white spots. This group has about 13 different species, and it takes a lab to tell them apart. They are also known as the “Sticky” Salamander for the secretions they release through skin glands. This gives them the ability to hang on to your hand as if they were glued on. The stuff is difficult to get off your hands later. They prefer to live on steep, moist, rocky slopes. They live under logs, stones, debris or burrows.

Two Lined Salamander is fairly small, getting only about 3¾ inches long. Its tail makes up 55 to 60 percent of its length. It uses all kinds of shelters in creeks, rivers or swamps. Its color is tan to light yellow with two black stripes running from the eyes to tail. These salamanders prefer to live in an aquatic area in the shallow areas.

Now let’s talk about the Indiana endangered salamander and also the largest in North America. I’m talking about the Hellbender Salamander, also known as the snot otter, devil dog and mud cat.

This is an odd-looking salamander with a broad and flattened head, loose skin, small beady eyes and a paddle-like tail. It got its name from fishermen who, upon catching it, decided it must have come from hell. It can grow to 30 inches long and weigh up to 5 pounds.

It was once found throughout the state in the Little Blue River, Whitewater River, Ohio River and the Wabash River, to name a few. Now it is found only in Blue River in southern Indiana. It hides by day, coming out at night to hunt crayfish, worms and small fish; however, it is also an opportunistic cannibal and will eat smaller adults as well as larva and eggs from its own and others’ nests.

They do have lungs but don’t use them for breathing; it is believed they are used for buoyancy.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. He can be reached at