Studying up on Indiana’s 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 the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and 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, northern red backed, slimy and the two lined.


This one gets eight to 13 inches long. It retains its gills throughout its life, never forming air-breathing lungs. Its color runs from gray to a rust-brown, and it inhabits lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. When it comes to eating, it will dine on almost any aquatic animal, fish, fish eggs, crayfish, or insects. The mudpuppy is mostly nocturnal.Smallmouth SalamanderThis salamander gets up to five and one-half inches long and is 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 smallmouth’s preferred home is under boards, logs or other debris, near ponds or swamps or anywhere in lowland forests there is a lot of moisture. It prefers to live underground and eats insects, spiders, slugs and worms.

Tiger Salamander

This one will get close to eight inches long and is brown to an olive or yellowish-brown; it is also 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.

Northern Red Backed

The northern red-backed is our most common salamander. It grows two and one-quarter to four inches. It has two variants, one is the reddish stripe (or it could be orange, yellow or a light gray) that runs from the base of the head to the tail. The leadback salamander has a dark gray to black stripe. This salamander has been divided into five species: northern, southern, zigzag, Ozark zigzag and the leadback.It lives under logs, dead leaves, and moss or inside rotting stumps. They spend no time in the water and their eggs are laid in a grape-like cluster. The young are born looking like miniature salamanders. The females mate every other year and for two months will guard the eggs until they hatch by coiling her body around them. These salamanders have no lungs and breathe through their skin, so they must remain moist at all times.

They hunt at night after a rain. Among their favorite foods are rabid wolf spiders, dog ticks, field crickets and chiggers. Some of their favorite shelters include: Virginia creeper, poison ivy, red clover and skunk cabbage.

Slimy Salamanders

These grow four and three-quarters to six and one-quarter inches, putting it in the medium-to-large category. They are black with white spots, with brassy specks, or both, and they have a round tail. There are 13 distinct species, but you can only tell the differences in a laboratory.These have also been called the ‘sticky’ salamander because of skin gland secretions that will stick like glue to your hands. They prefer to live under logs, stones, debris or burrows during the day and hunt at night. They breed in the spring, with the males doing a kind of dance to attract the females’ attention. The female will lay four to 12 eggs under a log, and the young hatch looking like salamanders around October. If an egg should die, she will eat it to prevent fungus from infecting the other eggs, and she remains with the eggs protecting them.

These salamanders have no lungs and breathe through their skin. They come out at night to hunt insects and small invertebrates.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to