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Lizards and salamanders

Though salamanders and lizards may look similar, they are quite different!

Salamanders belong to the group of animals called amphibians. Amphibians usually lay unshelled eggs in water or moist places, and most species have a gilled larval stage that changes into a lung-breathing adult. Amphibians have smooth or warty skin that can be quite penetrable, so most species remain in or near water or moist habitats.

Lizards belong to the reptile family. Reptile young are hatched from shelled eggs or born alive and are essentially miniature versions of their parents. Both amphibians and reptiles depend on the outside environment for body heat because they do not produce it internally. Lizards in Michigan can be found in a variety of habitats such as woodlands and grasslands.

  • Salamanders

    • Salamanders can absorb water, and even “breathe” through their skin. Most adult salamanders also breathe with lungs, though the little red-backed and four-toed salamanders lack lungs completely, and do all of their breathing through their skin.
    • Most species of salamanders (once they become terrestrial adults) spend the vast majority of their time hidden in soil or forest debris and are vulnerable to predators
    • like mammals, snakes, and birds, only during the brief spring breeding season.
    • Some species of salamanders, such as the eastern newt eft, have skin glands that produce distasteful or poisonous substances to repel predators.


    • Lizards (and some species of salamanders) can drop portions of their tail if they are attacked by a predator. The lost tailpiece will continue to wriggle and distracts the predator long enough for the lizard to escape. A new tail will eventually grow back.
    • Lizards have dry scaly skin and clawed toes.
    • When lizards hunt for insects and small invertebrates they usually hunt by using sight or smell. They may also use their tongue to “smell” chemical clues like snakes do.
    • Lizards communicate with one another using odors and body movements.
    • Lizards bask in the sun to raise their body temperature and are less active on cooler or hot days.

  • Salamanders

    Most Michigan salamanders begin breeding in the spring months with a few exceptions. These include the marbled salamander and the mudpuppy which breed in the fall, the four-toed salamander that breeds in late summer and fall, and the red-backed salamander which breeds in the fall through winter and early spring in some places.

    • Courtship may be simple or elaborate and occur on land or in water, depending on the species.
    • Courtship usually involves the male bumping and nudging the female with his snout or rubbing her with his chin. Sometimes this behavior looks like some type of “dance.”
    • Most salamanders deposit the gelatinous egg masses onto sticks, rocks, leaves, stems, moss, bark, or rotted logs.
    • Individual egg masses may contain as few as one egg up to about 250 eggs, with some species laying up to 1,000 eggs per season!
    • Most salamander larvae retain externally visible gills; however, they soon develop their front legs and then hind legs. For most species, during the larvae to adult transformation, the gills and tail fin are absorbed as lungs take over respiration and the legs grow stronger.
    • Salamander larvae often feed on aquatic animals including insect larvae, copepods, and fairy shrimp. Salamanders will often remain fully carnivorous as an adult and reach maturity after a few years.


    • Males aggressively defend their territories from other adult males during the spring breeding season.
    • Eggs are laid in a sheltered spot, such as in a burrow or under a log, stump, or rock.
    • Female skinks may protect their eggs from small predators, whereas the female racerunner does not.
    • Michigan lizards may lay 2 to 18 eggs and some older female race runners may lay a second clutch of eggs later in the summer. Eggs usually hatch in the late summer or early fall.
    • Temperature can influence the gender of the young. Eggs incubated at warmer temperatures tend to be males, while females result from cooler temperatures.


    Salamanders and lizards are harmless to humans. Lizards, like any wild animal, may bite to protect themselves.

    Never handle amphibians when you have insect repellent, sunscreen or soap on your hands – these thin-skinned animals can be harmed or killed by chemicals we consider harmless. And always wash your hands after handling a salamander or lizard!


  • Salamanders and lizards face a variety of threats in Michigan, such as habitat loss, pollution and illegal collection. They are very sensitive to environmental changes.

    • Take and possession of Michigan’s native reptiles and amphibians are highly regulated. See the current Michigan Fishing Guide for these important rules and a list of protected species.
    • Salamanders and lizards play an important role in the natural environment by contributing to ecological systems as predator and prey.
    • In Michigan, the small-mouthed salamander is listed as an endangered species, and the marbled salamander and six-lined racerunner are listed as threatened species. The western lesser siren is a species of special concern in Michigan.

    You can help salamanders and lizards by:

    • Learning all you can about our native salamander and lizard species.
    • Visiting nature centers, parks and zoos that offer programs on amphibians and reptiles.
    • Knowing state and federal laws that protect salamanders, lizards and their habitats.
    • Purchasing a fishing license.
    • Supporting conservation efforts to protect wetlands and other habitats.
    • Never buying wild, native-caught salamanders and lizards from pet dealers.
    • Never releasing non-native salamanders or lizards (or other animals) into the wild.
    • Reporting any salamander and lizard sightings to and helping us measure changes or trends in their populations.