Out of the Past
Did you know that the name “salamander” comes from an Arabian term for “lives in fire”? That’s because it was believed that the tailed newtlike amphibian was once thought to be able to endure fire. How did people get that idea? Salamanders frequently make their homes in firewood and once the wood began to burn the creatures would emerge leading many to think that they were born in fire. A few websites relate stories, anecdotes and yarns that have followed the fire salamander through the ages. Here is one written by an Italian artist of the sixteenth century in his autobiographical account Life of Benvenuto Cellini:
"When I was about five years of age, my father, happening to be in a little room in which they had been washing, and where there was a good fire of oak burning, looked into the flames and saw a little animal resembling a lizard, which could live in the hottest part of that element. Instantly perceiving what it was, he called for my sister and me, and after he had shown us the creature, he gave me a box on the ear. I fell a-crying, while he, soothing me with caresses, spoke these words: 'My dear child, I do not give you that blow for any fault you have committed, but that you may recollect that the little creature you see in the fire is a salamander; such a one as never was beheld before to my knowledge.' So saying he embraced me, and gave me some money."
Thank goodness we have better ways to obtain retention among children today! Leonardo da Vinci
also mentions the small dragon that lived in and fed on fire in his narratives believing that this habit explained how the salamander renewed its skin. Sometimes called a spotted salamander it enjoys a wide popularity in art as well as imagery:
The spotted salamander of the symbolists taxed the imagination. Its alleged resistance to fire was such that it lived in volcanoes. Pliny believed its body was cold enough to extinguish flames. Its spittle was so poisonous that a man's hair would fall off his body at its touch. This creature's presence was believed to poison wells and orchards.
It was considered the "king of fire" and as such was representative of Christ who would baptize with the flames of the Holy Spirit and who surprised his followers by warning, "I have come to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division." Lk 12:49 & 51
William of Normandy called the salamander the symbol of the 3 Hebrew children who survived the fiery furnace. Dan 3 The salamander can also represent the 4th man seen in the furnace who promised, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you ...When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you." Is 43:2. Cloquet considers Christ the salamander king of fire because He passed through the fires of hell after His crucifixion without harm.
The salamander represents those who pass through the fires of passion and of this world without stain. Therefore, it stands for chastity, loyalty, impartiality, virginity, courage, Jesus, Mary, and the faithful.
The salamander is also used to symbolize the flames which it passes through and so is a symbol of fire, temptation, and burning desire.
Well-liked as a pet this species of salamander can live up to twenty years. Improved legislation has facilitated a reduction in the numbers of fire salamanders trapped in the wild for both pet trade and research. Primarily terrestrial the bigger threat to their survival is the critical issue of habitat conservation and like all amphibians, the fire salamander is at risk to pollutants in its surroundings. Environmental fragmentation is also an impending problem given that they are so devoted to their home ranges and hibernation locations. One study found individuals returned to the same cave to hibernate for two decades. Protected in much of Europe in the year 2000 they were threatened enough that the Ukraine
featured the amphibian on postage stamp.
Also known as the European salamander, these solitary and shy Fire Sallies are brightly colored critters that breathe through their skin. Glossy and rubbery to the touch it's adorned with yellow, red, or orange aposematic markings against black bodies. These markings serve as a warning to predators that they secrete a neurotoxin from large pigmented parotid glands behind the eyes and produce a sticky poisonous substance from rows of poison glands extending lengthwise down the animal’s body. Upon contact the poison irritates the eyes and mouth and can be deadly to small mammals and may even cause temporary blindness and vomiting if ingested by a person. The main defense a fire salamander has is the capacity to actively spray these chemicals at predators to discourage attack, as opposed to evasion once the predator realizes it is consuming an all too disagreeable meal.
Home and habitations
As the biggest members of the Salamandridae family the brightly colored animals tunnel into shallow burrows in damp soil, particularly to keep cool during warm days. This is quite a bit different from most salamanders which prefer to keep warm. A fire salamander’s comfort zone ranges between 60 and 70º F and they display signs of heat stress when temperatures climb higher. Wintertime finds them hibernating in crevices, typically their favorite place is in a piece of wood.
Indigenous to Europe, Asia, and Africa fire salamanders can be found in forested, moist areas of Europe, with the exception of Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and the coast regions of the Northern and Baltic Sea. They are native to southwest Asia and northwest Africa; the northern regions of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The can be stubbournly loyal to the same home range for many years, continually revisiting the same wintering spots. One experiment determined that individuals returned to the same cave to hibernate for up to 20 years. These journeys require some mechanism for homing which remains undiscovered, however,fire salamanders have been observed following paths with landmarks for orientation. It is not known if these landmarks are more significant for their visual or their olfactory cues, although some experiments indicate that the visual cues may be important.
The search for prey
There are 42 species of salamanders and are classified as tailed amphibians despite their lizard-like reptilian appearance. Growing six to twelve inches long they are a nocturnal specie and as carnivores they dine on a steady diet of other amphibians and invertebrates. These include soft-bodied prey such as earthworms and slugs, and harder-bodied prey such as flies, millipedes, centipedes, and beetles among others. Most biologists say that they seem to utilize singular hunting tactics for different situations. When some light is present, it uses prey movement as a cue and pays no attention to stationary prey. On the other hand, when hunting in the dark, it uses olfaction as its primary cue since vision is impaired. In this circumstance as long as it can detect the odor it attacks the prey, even if the quarry is stationary.
Females tend to be slightly larger than males, do not breed until they are four years old and bear live young. There are several things that are not only unique but also interesting about their reproductive habits. Breeding occurs at night on well-established territories in mild humid weather during the spring or fall months with mating on land in a rather haphazard affair. Even though this creature uses sight and scent to find its mate, as the males and females come together in a frenzy, the male will pursue any salamander that moves until he recognizes a female. Scuttling underneath the female he will carry her on his back as a mating dance proceeds. Once the female shows she is interested the male releases a sac-filled spermatophore on the ground and moves aside so the female can absorb it. Development of the eggs occur viviparously meaning that the embryos derive their nourishment from a yolk inside the female. The majority of female fire salamanders can take up to a year to release their eggs.
This helps to account for the long gestation between the peak of mating season in the summer and the birth of the larvae in the following spring, after the winter hibernation . This seasonal pattern shifts in the warmer Middle Eastern populations, where breeding occurs October-January, with larval birth occurring the following November-December, after the period of inactivity that occurs during the arid summer.
After the eggs are fertilized, sometimes many months, the female will seek out a water source, dropping the rear of her body into the water where around twenty to seventy-five eggs are released into the water which oddly enough hatch immediately into tadpoles! At birth the larvae are frequently quite advanced, even though some deposit young that have already metamorphosed
, nearly all of the developmental stages take place while the larvae
are still inside the female, including the miniature gills that will keep them going in their watery environment. The little larvae feed with a ravenous appetite on minute insects in the water for roughly three months. During this time gills are absorbed and they go through other essential body changes that gets them ready to leave the water and begin life on land. Fire salamanders may live in excess of 14 years; therefore, females have the chance to breed multiple times during their lives.
Griffiths, Richard A. 1996. Newts and Salamanders of Europe. Academic Press, London.
What are fire salamanders: