A salamander is an amphibian in the order Caudata which has a lizardlike appearance, although salamanders lack the scales of true lizards. This order encompasses hundreds of individual salamander species and several large groupings, including sirens, salamanders without rear legs, and newts, a large group of salamanders found throughout the Northern hemisphere. These primordial creatures are believed to be among the oldest of living vertebrates found on land, and they provide interesting clues into the development of life on Earth.
The common name “salamander” is derived from an Ancient Greek word, salamandra, which appears to be of Eastern origin. The word was absorbed into Latin and later Old French, and used to refer to a mythical creature which could walk through fire. The link between these shy amphibians and this mythical creature is unclear; needless to say, fire is as damaging to salamanders as it is to most other living organisms.
Like other amphibians, salamanders prefer damp, moist places such as marshes, swamps, and waterways. They are especially abundant in North America, where they can be found in and around ponds, streams, and lakes. Some species also live arboreal lifestyles, favoring the environment of trees for their adult habitats. Salamanders range widely in size and coloration, but all of them have smooth, porous skins which may feel damp to the touch, along with long tails. Some species are also quite colorful, with beautiful orange or red spots on their bodies.
A salamander starts out as an aquatic larva hatched from an egg. Salamander larvae have gills so that they can breathe underwater until they develop into adults with lungs. Depending on the species, the salamander may live a primarily aquatic life, or it may range further afield. In all cases, salamanders are carnivores, preferring insects and small animals for food, and they are excellent swimmers.
As a general rule, salamanders avoid direct light, and many of them are nocturnal as a result. The animals do not thrive well in dry conditions, as most species need to keep their skins moist to promote general health and gas exchange. Because their skins are highly porous, salamanders are susceptible to environmental toxins and rough handling. Humans should be aware that salamanders can also carry bacteria which may be transferred through handling with bare hands. As a result, it is a good idea to wash your hands after dealing with salamanders.