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Meet our Salamanders

Our first Eastern Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum, joined us on April 1, 2016. "Tiger" was donated by an employee of The Conservation Foundation who found the small salamander in her window well. We are fairly sure that Tiger is a female. We named her Tiger because she slowly creeps up on her prey, like a tiger. Then she uses her lightening fast sticky tongue to quickly grab her food, just like a frog. Like other Tiger Salamanders, she has a big appetite and loves eating the nightcrawelers, or earthworms, we feed her.

When Tiger first arrived her coloring and pattern was quite different. Tiger Salamanders start out with spots which turn into stripes (like a tiger), irregular splotches (like our salamanders) or squiggly lines.  Tiger Salamanders are the most wide spread salamander in North American and the largest land dwelling salamander species on Earth. They average 6 to 8 inches long but can grow up to 13 inches long. When Tiger arrived last year she was about 5 inches long but she's about 10 inches long now!

Our second Eastern Tiger Salamander joined us in 2018. It was found in a Home Depot parking lot in November and carried into a PetSmart store. We called it "Spotinitially since it had spots and we weren’t sure if it was a Tiger Salamander or not. Now that it's larger, we know it's a Tiger Salamander but we don’t know if it’s a male or female yet. We’ve decided the best name for this salamander is “Lucky” since it was lucky someone found it before it was run over! Lucky is quickly growing on his diet of wax worms and nightcrawlers, cut into thirds.

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 each of our salamanders to submerge in and we spray their tanks 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 ephemeral – areas were water collects for a short time only. 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 referred to as “efts”. They have long, feathery gills to breathe underwater and grow very quickly. Eggs and efts are eaten by fish, water birds, insects, frogs, and other salamanders. Efts themselves are highly predatory just like the adults, eating zooplankton, insect larva, invertebrates, and some vertebrates, including other salamander larvae. They are sometimes sold as fish bait and incorrectly called “mudpuppies” but this is a different type of salamander. Tiger Salamander efts 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.

Both Tiger and Lucky are ambassadors for their 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.

  Tiger in her exhibit tank.

Top: Tiger waiting for her dinner in her feeding tank; Bottom: Tiger eating an earthworm

Top: Lucky half hidden in his cave; Bottom: Lucky out and ready to eat!

To learn more about Tiger Salamanders, click here.