By Eric Duran
As a naturalist, I get questions about a lot of different animals. People are often curious about the small creatures they see crawling around their yards, but they don’t always know how to describe or label them. One of the misnomers I hear repeatedly is the use of the word “salamander” to describe many small lizards. There is a lot of difference between salamanders and lizards, and that’s what we’ll take a look at in this month’s column.
First, lizards are reptiles, and salamanders are amphibians. Like all reptiles, lizards have scales on their skin that can be large and noticeable or small and hard to see. Scales are made out of keratin, the material that your hair and fingernails are made of, and may be shiny and smooth or may have a rough appearance.
Lizards usually lay eggs with shells on them in the soil, under rocks and logs, and under leaf litter. They breathe air with lungs their entire lives. Lizards like the shiny Five-lined Skink (pictured here is the blue tailed juvenile) are often mistaken for salamanders, but if you look closely, you’ll see the scales. Lizards include anoles, skinks, and geckos.
Perhaps the most commonly seen native lizard is the Green Anole, which can change colors from green to brown, at will. The males are rather noticeable, as they often show off their pink throat fan (called a dewlap) as a territorial or mating display. There is also a non-native invasive Cuban Brown Anole which inhabits our area, as well.
Salamanders are amphibians, like frogs and toads. Like other amphibians, their eggs do not have shells, and so they must lay their eggs in moist or wet places so that they don’t dry out. They do not have scales on their skin and do not have claws (as lizards do). Salamanders start their lives as aquatic larvae, or tadpoles, and therefore breathe oxygen out of water with gills as juveniles, like fish. As they grow up, most salamanders undergo metamorphosis, changing to air-breathing adults. Most adult salamanders breathe with lungs, but some absorb oxygen from the air through the lining of the mouth. Some salamanders retain their gills into adulthood and stay in the water.
Salamanders like newts, sirens, and amphiumas are primarily aquatic as adults. Most of the adult salamanders in Texas are terrestrial, like Tiger Salamanders and Smallmouth Salamanders. Many of them can be found under moist rotting logs in Eastern Texas forests, like the Marbled Salamander. Marbled salamanders, like many others, are dependent on vernal pools to breed (seasonal Spring wetlands in forests, which lack fish that may prey on their vulnerable larvae).
If you’d like a chance to meet with some live lizards and salamanders up close and personal, drop by our Discovery Rooms. We’re open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays (12 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.) and Saturdays and Sundays (10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.). Click here for more info.
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire.