When you look at a salamander, what do you see? While they appear similar to lizards, salamanders are actually amphibians, not reptiles. Most species live the majority of their lives near or in water. In addition, many possess special respiratory abilities that allow them to take in oxygen in and out of water. Their moist, smooth bodies lack scales, and they can regenerate lost limbs. Some salamanders are also known as newts, but while all newts are salamanders, not all salamanders are newts.
Salamanders come in all sorts of sizes, from tiny species no more than a few inches long to giant creatures the size of a large dog. There are over 600 species of salamander in the world, but which one is the largest? To determine which salamander is the biggest, it’s important to measure them from nose to tail. In addition, weight may also be considered when two species exhibit similar lengths. With that in mind, here is a list of the 10 largest salamanders in the world.
#10: Common Mudpuppy
Also known as waterdogs, the common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) is an aquatic salamander native to North America. They get their name from their rust-brown color and penchant for living in muddy ponds and streams. Their small, flat limbs make them well adapted to wading along the bottom of rivers and lakes. Around the size of a lizard, they average 13 inches long but can grow up to 17.1 inches.
Mudpuppies range from southern Canada to Georgia and from the Midwest to the east coast. During the day, they hide under rocks and logs, and at night they come out to hunt. They are not picky eaters and will eat almost anything that they catch. Their diet consists of insects, small fish, amphibians, worms, spiders, and mollusks. Few predators hunt mudpuppies, and most fishermen frequently discard them if caught. Thanks to their widespread distribution, the IUCN lists them as a species of Least Concern.
The proteus or olm (Proteus anguinus) is the only salamander in Europe that lives exclusively in caves. The olm goes by many other names, including the cave salamander and “human fish,” due to its flesh-pink skin color. They typically measure between 8-12 inches long, but especially large specimens can reach up to 16 inches. Their lifespan is extremely long compared to most amphibians, with an estimated longevity of up to 100 years.
Olms live their entire lives in the waters of caves throughout central and southeastern Europe, specifically those in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although they are completely blind, their other senses evolved with extraordinary sensitivity. They can sense sound waves in the water and ground, and detect the presence of organic compounds in the water around them. Their diet includes small crustaceans, snails, and insects, which they swallow whole rather than chew. Due to their hypersensitivity to environmental conditions and pollution, the IUCN lists them as a Vulnerable species.
The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), or Mexican walking fish, gets its name from the Classical Nahuatl language of Mexico. While related to the terrestrial tiger salamander, the axolotl differs from its relative in that it is entirely aquatic and never undergoes metamorphosis. Adults generally measure between 9-12 inches, although they can grow up to 18 inches in length. They occur in several color variations, including pale pink with black eyes, white with red eyes, golden with golden eyes, and brown with olive undertones.
Axolotls occur only in the freshwater Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in Mexico. However, Lake Chalco no longer exists, and Xochimilco is a shadow of its former self. Their diet includes mollusks, worms, insects, and small fish, which they consume by sucking their prey into their mouths. They possess remarkable regenerative abilities and can regrow entire limbs. Due to habitat loss, pollution, and competition with invasive species, less than 1,000 adults live in the wild. As a result, the IUCN lists axolotls as a Critically Endangered Species.
#7: Reticulated Siren
Also known as the leopard eel, scientists only recently cataloged a description of the reticulated siren (Siren reticulata) back in 2018. These mysterious salamanders can grow up to 2 feet long, although most only reach a little over 12 inches in length. The reticulated siren is one of the largest animals found in the United States to be newly cataloged in the past 100 years. Their greenish-grey bodies appear almost eel-like, which is where they get their name.
Little is known about the reticulated siren’s ecology or history. They tend to live in wetlands and marshes and occur only throughout southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Their diet remains a mystery, although they likely eat similar foods to most other aquatic salamanders. As of yet, the IUCN has not evaluated the species or given it a special status.
#6: Lesser Siren
The lesser siren (Siren intermedia) goes by many other names including the two-legged siren, dwarf siren, and mud eel. They possess only two legs, which is where they get their name. While some specimens measure only 7 inches in length, especially large lesser sirens can grow up to 27 inches. Their bodies usually appear dark green or bluish-black.
Lesser sirens range throughout the eastern United States and northern Mexico. During the day, they spend their time hidden under mud at the bottom of streams. At night, they come out to feed on worms, insects, snails, crustaceans, and tadpoles of other amphibians. If their habitat dries up, they will burrow into the mud to avoid dehydrating. They can also secrete fluids from their skin to keep their bodies moist. While some populations appear threatened by pollution and habitat destruction, the IUCN lists them as a species of Least Concern.
#5: Greater Siren
The great siren (Siren lacertina) is the largest member of the genus Siren and the longest salamander in North America. They can measure anywhere from 7-38 inches long, and weigh up to 2.2 pounds. While colors vary, they generally appear olive green or grey with yellow dots along their sides. Like its lesser cousin, they also only possess two, small limbs at the front of their bodies, which completely disappear beneath their gills.
Greater sirens live in coast plains from Washington D.C. to Florida. They prefer to live in wetlands and marshes with slow-moving bodies of water, and burrow into mud to protect themselves from drying out. Their diet includes insects, spiders, mollusks, crustaceans, crayfish, and small fish, but they will also eat algae on certain occasions. While their range is not as great as it used to be, the IUCN still lists them as a species of Least Concern.
Although the hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is not the longest salamander in North America, it is by far the most massive. They typically measure between 12-30 inches in length and weigh from 3.3-5.5 pounds. The origins of its name remain unclear but may be due either to its odd look or the strange way its skin undulates when it respires. Their flat bodies appear blotchy brown or brown-red, and while they possess gills they don’t use them to breathe as adults.
Hellbenders live throughout the eastern United States and tend to prefer rocky rivers and streams with swift-moving water. This is likely due to their specialized method of breathing, which involves taking in oxygen from the water through the capillaries in their skin folds. Their diet usually consists of crayfish and small fish, although they will also prey on other hellbender’s eggs. Due to sharp decreases in their population, the IUCN lists them as a Near Threatened species.
#3: Japanese Giant Salamander
The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) is the largest salamander in the world not native to China. They can grow up to 5 feet long and weigh nearly 58 pounds. Their brown and black skin helps them to blend in with their environment at the bottom of streams. In Japanese, their name Ōsanshōuo literally translates to “giant pepper fish.”
Japanese giant salamanders live in clear, fast-flowing rivers throughout southwestern Japan. Like the hellbender, they require fast-flowing water to flow over their bodies in order to take in enough oxygen. They feed primarily on insects, frogs, and fish. However, their metabolism is so slow that they can go for weeks without eating. Despite featuring prominently in Japanese legends, their population is threatened by pollution, overcollection, and habitat loss. Currently, the IUCN lists Japanese giant salamanders as a Near Threatened species.
#2: South China Giant Salamander
The South China giant salamander (Andrias sligoi) is arguably the largest species of salamander in the world. A close relative of the Chinese giant salamander, the largest known specimen measured nearly 5.9 feet long. First described in 1924 by a British zoologist, the species is distinct enough to merit its own classification. However, very little is known about the species to conduct a proper evaluation of its genome, behavior, and physical description.
South China giant salamanders once lived throughout southern China, particularly in the Pearl River basin near the Nanling Mountains. However, overcollection for food and medicinal purposes severely limited their population. At present, most live side-by-side with other giant salamanders in farms, and it’s possible that no specimens exist in the wild. Due to its reduction to a farmed animal, the IUCN lists the South China giant salamander as a Critically Endangered species.
#1: Chinese Giant Salamander
The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) is the largest salamander and one of the heaviest amphibians in the world. They can grow up to 5.9 feet long and weigh up to 130 pounds. While the South China giant salamander may grow larger, enough proof does not exist to confirm this claim. Their bodies typically appear dark brown with a speckled pattern, but they can come in red, black, or albino tones. In the Chinese language, they also go by the name “infant fish,” due to their habit of barking, whining, and crying like a child.
For 170 million years, Chinese giant salamanders ranged throughout China, but their range is now severely fragmented. In the wild, they prefer to live in rocky crevices near the banks of clear water lakes or fast-flowing streams. Large numbers live on farms in China, but some specimens have been released in rivers in Japan. Their diet includes insects, worms, amphibians, crabs, shrimp, fish, and water shrews, which they hunt by sensing vibrations around them. Since the 1950s, over 80% of its population in the wild has declined. This decline prompted the IUCN to list the Chinese giant salamander as a Critically Endangered species.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What country is the largest salamander native to?
The largest salamander in the world is native to China. Both the Chinese giant salamander and Japanese giant salamander are gigantic compared to other salamanders across the world. The largest salamander in the U.S weighs up to 5.5 pounds while the Japanese salamander measures up to 58 pounds and the Chinese giant salamander tips the scales at up to 130 pounds!
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