You’d think that something with a name like ‘fire salamander’ would have some kind awesome power, like being able to breathe fire or something. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Instead the name likely comes from the myth that salamanders could survive in fire — because people would throw logs on a fire and salamanders would crawl out. This is, of course, not true, but fire salamanders are still pretty cool.
Fire salamanders are one of the most common species of salamander in Europe. They mostly live in central and southern Europe, though their range does extend into northern Africa and the Middle East. Like any amphibian, the fire salamander needs to be close to water, so they prefer forested areas near ponds. Most of their time is spent hiding in crevices and logs for protection, which might be why so many of them get thrown on fires.
As far as amphibians go, fire salamanders look pretty cool. They are around 15-25 centimetres long, though some can grow to over 30 centimetres long. They are black with bright yellow or orange markings, which make them quite pretty, in a salamandery way. Though they aren’t exactly models of grace and beauty, with their stubby legs and thick tail. Still, bright yellow spots are always in style, right?
Mating in fire salamanders takes place on land, with males approaching females and trying to convince them to mate. This isn’t exactly an easy task for the male: he deposits a spermatophore on the ground and then grapples the female, trying to bring her cloaca in contact with the spermatophore. If this is successful, the spermatophore is absorbed into the cloaca, and fertilization occurs inside the female. She then keeps the eggs inside her until they are hatching, at which point she lays them in a nice cosy body of water.
One awesome thing about fire salamanders that may actually earn them their name is the poison they secrete from their skin. Among other compounds, they secrete Samandarin, a chemical that causes muscle convulsions, hypertension and hyperventilation in predators. The salamanders can spray these chemicals at attackers, making them especially dangerous.
I guess being able to shoot poison from your skin is a reasonable substitute for being able to breathe fire. Still, I was a little disappointed when I found out the truth about fire salamanders. Oh well!
Cover image By Donaldtownsend – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0