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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California







Salamander Behavior and Life History -
Defensive Strategies

 









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Defense
     
salamander salamander salamander
When they feel threatened by another animal, Rough-skinned Newts sometimes assume a defensive posture called an Unkenreflex. They arch their backs and tails, raising their head to expose a brightly colored underside which signals that they are poisonous to eat. This response is often triggered when they are picked up or when their back is touched. The video on the right shows a newt assuming its defensive posture.
A Sierra Newt in a defensive pose. A California Newts assuming a defensive pose. A California Newts assuming a defensive pose.
A Sierra Newt in a defensive pose. A California Newts assuming a defensive pose.
salamander salamander Speckled Black Salamander
Be careful when handling Arboreal Salamanders. They have sharp teeth and aren't afraid to use them!

Mike Spencer found it, Val Johnson took the pictures, and Shannon Hoss inadvertently donated some blood when she picked up this toothy beast in Mendocino County.   © Val Johnson

Adult Speckled Black Salamander in what appears to be an "unken reflex" defensive pose. © Grayson Sandy
Northwestern Salamanders with white secretions. Northwestern Salamanders have parotoid glands on their heads, backs and tails. When they are threatened, they put their head down in a defensive posture and release a white poisonous fluid from these glands. Sometimes they will butt their head and lash their tail to smear the poison on an attacker. This poison can kill or sicken small animals and causes skin irritation in some people. Northwestern Salamanders with white secretions. Northwestern Salamanders have parotoid glands on their heads, backs and tails. When they are threatened, they put their head down in a defensive posture and release a white poisonous fluid from these glands. Sometimes they will butt their head and lash their tail to smear the poison on an attacker. This poison can kill or sicken small animals and causes skin irritation in some people. A Larch Mountain Salamander sitting on a rock becomes alarmed and runs while quickly writhing its body back and forth until it rolls itself into a ball and rolls down off the rock where it bounces off another rock and springs and rolls again until it lands safely. This amazing escape behavior, developed as a defense for survival on steep rocky slopes, is shown in real time, then slowed down for a better look.
Northwestern Salamanders with white secretions. Northwestern Salamanders have parotoid glands on their heads, backs and tails. When they are threatened, they put their head down in a defensive posture and release a white poisonous fluid from these glands. Sometimes they will butt their head and lash their tail to smear the poison on an attacker. This poison can kill or sicken small animals and causes skin irritation in some people. A Larch Mountain Salamander sitting on a rock becomes alarmed and runs while quickly writhing its body back and forth until it rolls itself into a ball and rolls down off the rock where it bounces off another rock and springs and rolls again until it lands safely. This amazing escape behavior, developed as a defense for survival on steep rocky slopes, is shown in real time, then slowed down for a better look.
The Limestone Salamander also curls itself up to roll away to safety.

Sierra Nevada Ensatina When threatened, Ensatina assume a defensive pose with their bodies raised up off the ground and their tails elevated. They release a white poisonous fluid from glands on their tail and head. When threatened, Ensatina assume a defensive pose with their bodies raised up off the ground and their tails elevated. They release a white poisonous fluid from glands on their tail and head.
Sierra Ensatina Oregon Ensatina Yellow-eyed Ensatina
When threatened, Ensatina assume a defensive pose with their bodies raised up off the ground and their tails elevated. They release a white poisonous fluid from glands on their tail and head. When threatened, Ensatina assume a defensive pose with their bodies raised up off the ground and their tails elevated. They release a white poisonous fluid from glands on their tail and head. When threatened, Ensatina assume a defensive pose with their bodies raised up off the ground and their tails elevated. They release a white poisonous fluid from glands on their tail and head.
  Painted Ensatina  
When threatened, Ensatinas assume a defensive pose with their bodies raised up off the ground and their tails elevated. They release a milky white poisonous fluid from glands on their tail and head.


Relictual Slender Salamander Relictual Slender Salamander Relictual Slender Salamander
Relictual Slender Salamander Relictual Slender Salamander Relictual Slender Salamander
When a salamander is feeling threatened, it will sometimes drop its tail. This is referred to as caudal autotomy. Once removed from the body, the tail will wiggle frantically for several minutes, distracting a predator long enough for the salamander to crawl away slowly, or to remain still enough that it is no longer visible to the enemy.

In the first four pictures of the series above, an adult Greenhorn Mountains Slender Salamander was photographed as it was writhing about, shaking its tail rapidly, until it finally broke off and continued wiggling on its own. The end of the detached tail is also shown above. The flash stopped the motion of the salamander making it look like it is sitting still, but it was moving back and forth rapidly.

This tail detachment does not harm the salamander. It will survive and grow a new tail, but the salamander is at a disadvantage since it has lost an important defense mechanism, as well as energy stored in the tail, and any perceived size advantage it may have had in protecting its territory or attracting a mate. Always handle salamanders (and lizards) carefully and avoid stressing an animal to prevent the tail from breaking off.

California Slender Salamander salamander  
Sometimes a tail regenerates in two forks or, as it looks like has happened to this salamander, a new tail will start growing where a tail is damaged even when the original tail heals and doesn't break off. Adult, San Francisco County © Zach Lim In this video as I lift a fallen branch with a Gregarious Slender Salamander underneath it, the salamander's tail comes off and begins wriggling on the ground. This is a defensive tactic used to distract a predator towards the moving tail and away from the animal which remains still. The salamander may have intentionally released its tail here, or it could have just been a result of lifting the log. I pick up the tail and you can see an edited version of it slowly wriggling to a stop.  
     

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