All you need to know about salamanders

The Japanese giant salamander sitting on the road by a patch of grass.
The Japanese giant salamander sitting on the road by a patch of grass.TWITTER/@SASSA1002

It is not often that you find a stray salamander taking a morning stroll in a park.

But on Saturday, Twitter user @SASSA1002 came across a Japanese giant salamander doing just that on the banks of the Kamogawa river in Kyoto, Japan.

She uploaded two pictures, one of the unusual creature sitting on the road by a patch of grass, and another of two police officers standing by as the salamander moved across the grass.

It is unconfirmed whether the police were called in to protect the salamander from human beings, or to protect humans from a creature they felt could very possibly be baby Godzilla.

A big dark lump with a floppy tail trailing behind, it looked like a rock, or an artistically-designed park bench.

Unlike stray cats and dogs, stray salamanders are more uncommon. Here are some things you might or might not have known about the creature.

Origins of a name

The name "salamander" comes from the Greek word for "fire lizard".

It originated from the days when logs were thrown into fireplaces, and salamanders hiding inside the logs came scurrying out. Obviously they were running for their lives, but people back then thought the animals emerged from the fires.

In popular culture, the salamander was the inspiration for Pokemon character Charmander, an orange lizard with blue eyes and a flame at the end of its tail, and the only word it knows is its own name. Charmander was named so by combining the words "char", which means burnt, and "salamander".

Species

There are altogether 500 species of salamanders in the world.

They range from the minute salamanders, which can measure just 2.7cm from head to tail. That is about half the width of an iPhone 5.

Then there is the Chinese giant salamander, the largest species of salamander and also the largest amphibian in the world, that can grow up to 1.8m long.

That is also the height of popular Hollywood actor Brad Pitt.

The Japanese giant salamander, the species of the one that appeared along the Kamogawa river on Saturday, is the second largest salamander species.

Life span

A salamander can live for a very, very long time.

There is a species called the blind salamander that lives nearly 69 years on average. This species can be found in the limestone caves of southern Europe, and have a predicted maximum age of more than a century.

The Japanese giant salamander species is a survivor from the Upper Jurassic period, some 140 million years ago.

This means that its ancestors had, at one point in history, dined with dinosaurs and then survived the asteroid hit that wiped everything out.

Salamanders are generally nocturnal creatures, turning active only in the darkness of the night. This makes the Japanese giant salamander sighting on Saturday all the more unusual.

Salamanders are not lizards

Salamanders are often mistaken for lizards.

They might look like lizards, crawling along on all fours with their long and slim bodies, but unlike the lizard's dry and scaly skin, salamanders have smooth and glossy skin.

They even have the ability to regrow their limbs like lizards.

Remember when you were a kid, and you accidentally cut off a lizard's tail, then felt bad for a month since you didn't know that the little creature could grow a new one? Yes, salamanders are just like that.

Some salamanders are even able to re-grow legs, parts of their spinal cord, organs, lower jaws, eyes and hearts, within a few weeks of losing them.

But salamanders and lizards are not even from the same family.

Living both on land and in water

While lizards are reptiles, salamanders are amphibians, which means they are able to survive both in water and on land. A salamander is thus more closely related to a frog or a toad than a lizard.

Salamanders breathe through different methods. While those living on land breathe through lungs, aquatic salamanders have gills instead.

Some species have neither lungs nor gills, and breathe through their skins, much like a frog does.

Favourite food

Salamanders feed on worm and other insects.

The salamanders that live on land have long tongues that shoot out of their mouths quickly to catch its prey. Some species even boast tongues measuring up to 10 times their own body lengths.

A giant palm salamander is so quick, that in less than 10 milliseconds, or 1/30th of a blink of an eye, it can shoot out and recoil its tongue. How's that for some tongue action.

Aquatic salamanders, on the other hand, have teeth to capture and consume their prey.

Environmental signals

Salamander skin is very sensitive to environmental pollution, as toxins can pass through and reach their inner organs.

Hence by keeping count of the number of salamanders in a certain area, scientists can gauge whether the environment there is healthy. If there is a large population of salamanders, it means the surroundings are clean.

Conservation

Due to pollution and the destruction of their habitats in wetland areas, many salamander populations have shrunk in recent years. Some species, such as the California tiger salamander, have been listed as endangered.

The Chinese giant salamander, for example, is also often caught for its meat as it is considered a delicacy. It is a status symbol among the wealthy, and can sell for around $1,000 a piece.

Its body parts are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This has seen its numbers decline about 80 per cent since the 1950s.

So instead of looking at salamanders as slimy and disgusting, the creatures are actually really cool - as in literally cold-blooded - and face possible extinction if they are not protected.