Did you find a salamander in Iowa?
First, congratulations! Although these amphibians are widespread, they can be challenging to locate. The best places to look are in wet habitats under rocks and in creekbeds. Honestly, looking for salamanders is a really fun experience!
Below you will find a list of the most common and interesting salamanders that live in Iowa. You will find detailed pictures, along with range maps for each species to help with your identification!
5 Types of Salamanders in Iowa:
#1. Eastern Newt
- Notophthalmus viridescens
- Larvae are aquatic and have smooth, olive green skin, narrow, fin-like tails, and feathery gills.
- Juveniles are terrestrial and have rough, orangish-red skin with darker spots outlined in black.
- Adults have slimy, dull olive-green skin, dull yellow undersides, darker black-rimmed spots, and a blade-like tail.
Eastern Newts have the most complicated life cycle of any salamander in Iowa!
When they’re first hatched, they spend all of their time in the water. This larval stage lasts for two to five months. After that, they metamorphose into juvenile Eastern Newts.
They live in terrestrial forest habitats for two to seven years during their juvenile stage. Even though they generally remain hidden under moist leaf litter and debris, you may see them moving about on rainy days and nights, foraging insects, worms, and spiders. This is the stage of life you’re most likely to see an Eastern Newt. If you spot one, be careful – they have glands that secrete a potent neurotoxin when they’re threatened.
Finally, Eastern Newts will migrate back to a water source and metamorphose into aquatic adults, where they eat small amphibians, fish, and worms. They can live up to 15 years and spend the rest of their lives in this aquatic form.
Interestingly, Eastern Newts are known for their homing ability, which allows them to travel to and from their breeding ground. Though scientists are unsure of the exact mechanism, the Eastern Newt likely uses magnetic orientation to find its way!
#2. Eastern Tiger Salamander
- Ambystoma tigrinum
- Adults range from 6 to 8 inches in length.
- Their coloring is dark gray, brown, or black with brownish-yellow to greenish-yellow markings, ranging from large spots and stripes to small irregular shapes on the head, back, and tail.
- This species has a thick body and neck, short snout, strong legs, and a lengthy tail.
This species is one of the largest terrestrial salamanders in Iowa.
Eastern Tiger Salamanders are secretive and spend much of their time underground in woods, grasslands, or marshes. You’re most likely to see them moving about and foraging on rainy nights.
Their diet is primarily made up of insects, worms, slugs, and frogs. However, if there’s a prey shortage, they become much less picky. They’ve been observed feeding on baby snakes, newborn mice, and small salamanders of other species. They will even cannibalize their own young in times of low food supply!
Eastern Tiger Salamanders are very long-lived and have been known to reach 16 years of age in the wild. However, individuals in captivity can live much longer, up to 25 years.
Although Eastern and Western Tiger Salamanders are closely related, it would be unusual to mix up these two species. First, because they rarely share the same range and aren’t often seen together. Secondly, Eastern Tiger Salamanders are much larger and have a black patch on their snout.
#3. Common Mudpuppy
- Necturus maculosus
- Adults range from 8 to 19 inches in length.
- This species is rusty brown to gray or black with scattered bluish-black or black spots, which sometimes merge to form stripes. The underside is whitish and may also have bluish-black spots.
- The large, bushy, red, or maroon external gills behind the flattened head make this species easy to identify.
Common Mudpuppies are among the most well-known salamanders in Iowa.
These LARGE salamanders can be found in nearly any body of water, including lakes, reservoirs, ditches, and rivers. They are secretive and require habitats with lots of cover, such as boulder piles, submerged logs, tree roots, or vegetation.
Common Mudpuppies are nocturnal and spend their days hiding under rocks. They’re active at night and hunt by walking along the lake or river bottom, but they can also swim. These opportunistic feeders eat whatever aquatic organisms they can catch, including insect larvae, small fish, fish eggs, aquatic worms, snails, and even carrion.
In the spring, when water temperatures don’t fluctuate as much, Common Mudpuppies spend time in shallow water. However, they have been reported in water as deep as 100 feet during the summer and winter!
#4. Small-Mouthed Salamander
- Ambystoma texanum
- Adults range from 4.3 to 7 inches in length.
- Their coloring is gray or dark brown, with light gray or silvery flecks on the back and gray blotches on black undersides.
- They have a relatively small head and long tail, and males are typically smaller than females.
Small-Mouthed Salamanders prefer wooded areas near wetlands or floodplains, but they also occupy open habitats like agricultural land and prairies. They remain hidden for most of the day, spending their time under rotting logs, rocks, and tree litter. They may also use old mammal and crayfish burrows.
If threatened, Small-Mouthed Salamanders typically raise and undulate their tail while tucking their head beneath it. In addition, their tails have granular glands on the top that produce toxic secretions to deter predators.
You’re most likely to see Small-Mouthed Salamanders as they migrate to nearby breeding ponds in February or March. They typically migrate at night during rainy weather. Their breeding grounds include vernal pools, runoff ponds, flooded areas, and roadside ditches.
#5. Blue-spotted Salamander
- Ambystoma laterale
- Adults range from 3.9 to 5.5 inches in length.
- Their coloring is bluish-black with blue and white flecks on the back and a lighter underside.
- They have four toes on the front feet and five toes on the hind feet.
This species is the most beautiful salamander in Iowa!
You can find Blue-Spotted Salamanders in moist deciduous forests, swampy woodlands, and occasionally in coniferous forests and fields. Look for them under logs, rocks, leaf litter, or other organic debris. They’re generally only seen on damp, rainy nights.
Blue-spotted Salamanders have an interesting defense against predators. When threatened, they curl their bodies and wriggle to attract a predator to their tail. Then, they secrete a sticky, foul-tasting liquid into the predator’s mouth. Once they get a mouthful, most predators learn to leave this salamander alone!
Blue-spotted Salamanders breed in vernal pools to protect their young from becoming prey. These pools dry out in the summer, so they don’t support larger predators, making them a safe place for eggs to incubate.
Which of these salamanders have you seen in Iowa?
Tell us about it in the comments!
Also, if you enjoy this article, make sure to check out these other guides about herps! As you may have guessed, “herps” refers to herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians like salamanders.