Meet our Salamander

Meet our Tiger salamander, Lucky, who joined us in 2018. He was found in a Home Depot parking lot in November and carried into a PetSmart store. We called him "Spot" initially since he had spots and we weren't sure if it was a Tiger Salamander or not. Now that he's larger, we know he's a Tiger Salamander (and a male). We've decided the best name for him is “Lucky” since he was lucky someone found him before he was run over! Lucky uses his lightening fast sticky tongue to quickly grab his food, just like a frog. Like other Tiger Salamanders, he has a big appetite and loves eating the nightcrawlers, or earthworms, we feed him along with occasional wax worms as treats.

The Eastern Tiger Salamander was voted our official Illinois state amphibian in 2005. Tiger Salamanders can live up to 15 years in the wild and in captivity.  Salamanders are thick bodied amphibians with short, rounded snouts, long tails, sturdy bodies and legs, small eyes and a mouth that looks like a smile. Their skin secretes mucous to limit moisture loss but the skin of our salamander feels dry. Since they don't drink water - they absorb it through their skin instead - we provide a “pond-like” source of water for our salamander to submerge in and we spray his tank with water daily.


Although fairly common in our area we rarely see salamanders. They live in moist environments and some species live their entire lives in water. Believe it or not twenty species of salamanders live in Illinois!  Adult Tiger Salamanders spend most of their lives on land in underground burrows that can go down 2 feet (made by rodents, shrews or crayfish), in rotten logs or under rocks and leaves in a variety of undisturbed habitats. They emerge at night to hunt for their prey. They eat mostly slow moving animals – worms, insects, beetles and sometimes other amphibians. The best time to see a wild salamander is in late winter or early spring during or right after a rain. They are early breeders, and head to ponds to mate in February and continue through April. Tiger Salamanders have been found in water covered with ice, with the males arriving first, getting ready to perform their courtship moves for the females.  The ponds must be devoid of fish and are usually vernal – areas were water collects for a short time in the spring. Both males and females tend to travel each year to the same breeding pond where they were born. Travel to and from these ponds can be a dangerous time for salamanders because the landscape may have changed (new roads, bridges, subdivisions) or water may have drained from their usual spot. This habitat loss plus acid rain, disease, drought and pollution affects salamander populations. Although not endangered or threatened in Illinois, many states list them as such. Salamanders are also eaten by snakes, skunks, raccoons, and owls but many secrete a toxic substance to deter predators in both their larval and adult stages.

Like most amphibians, salamanders live part of their lives in water, as larvae, and part of their lives on land, as adults. Adult female tiger salamanders attach their sticky eggs to submerged twigs, leaves and plants in gelatinous clumps of 25-50 eggs. They can lay up to 1000 eggs in a breeding season. After about 4 weeks the larvae emerge. They are tiny and almost transparent with no legs. During this larval stage they are often called "nymphs". They have long, feathery gills to breathe underwater and grow very quickly. Eggs and larvae are eaten by fish, water birds, insects, frogs, and other salamanders. The larvae themselves are highly predatory just like the adults, eating zooplankton, insect larva, invertebrates, and some vertebrates, including other salamander larvae. Tiger Salamander larvae are sometimes sold as fish bait and incorrectly called “mudpuppies” but this is a different type of salamander. Most Tiger Salamander nymphs transform into adults, losing their gills and developing legs and lungs, during the summer or early autumn months. Then they travel to adjacent woodlands and live underground until they are mature enough to journey back to their ancestral pond and mate.

Lucky is an ambassador for his species, helping visitors to learn about these secretive but fascinating amphibians. As with all our live animals, their presence helps educate visitors about local wildlife and the importance of animal habitat.

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