|Salamanders are typical vertebrates having four legs, two eyes, a mouth, and a long tail (although the tail may be completely or partially broken off.) Most of them have smooth, moist, sensitive skin. Newts, a type of salamander, have bumpy, dry skin, when they are living on land. Their skin becomes smoother when they return to live in the water during the breeding season.
Most salamanders are secretive and not often encountered. Many people are unaware of their presence, even though they may be abundant in some locations. There is very little mention of them in popular culture and they have almost no commercial value for food or other uses, all of which adds to their obscurity. (Besides sales in the pet trade, salamander larvae are sometimes sold as bait to fishermen, but this has been banned in California because it has spread non-native species when the bait escapes and survives.)
Salamanders are usually active at night and are seen rarely, unless they are found while hiding beneath objects that are overturned. Occasionally they may be observed crossing a sidewalk or a road on a rainy night. Driving a quiet road at night in salamander habitat during early fall or winter rains is often a good way to see them. Newts are active day and night, and are most visible in early winter when they gather in large numbers in ponds and creeds to breed. Other air-breathing species such as the Giant Salamanders are sometimes seen swimming in water or walking in a creek during daylight.
Salamanders can be found on land, in trees, underneath surface objects and bark, on rocks and walls, including vertical rock faces, in streams, in ponds, and in residential yards and basements. They will take shelter wherever there is moisture and cover, including underneath boards, slabs of concrete, flower pots, siding, and other objects around the home. Arboreal salamanders can sometimes even be found on buildings on rainy nights.
Most species are active above ground at night from the onset of the fall rains until the ground dries and temperatures heat up in late spring or summer, when most California salamanders take shelter in cool moist areas inside logs and rockpiles or under the ground. During very cold periods in winter, they may also be inactive. At very high elevations where snow covers the ground until late spring or early summer, salamanders are inactive from the first snows in fall to snowmelt in spring or summer. In very wet areas such as the North Coast they may be active even during summer, usually near streams. Several coastal species have stream-dwelling young that are active all year long. Walking a stream edge at night with a flashlight is often a good way to see them exposed in the water.
They are sometimes confused for lizards, due to their similar body shapes and size, but salamanders are typically observed on rainy nights or hiding out of sight, while lizards are generally observed during dry sunny days when they are most active. Lizards also have dry skin with visible scales while salamanders, except newts, have shinier, wet-looking skin, with no scales. Slender salamanders are often mistaken for worms due to their thin elongated bodies, but a close look will reveal four tiny legs, which are not found on worms.
Salamanders are carniverous. Adults eat a variety of small invertebrates, including worms, ants, beetles, crickets, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs, and snails, and small vertebrates such as frog tadpoles and other salamanders. As they grow larger, they eat fewer, but larger prey items.
Food is caught by stalking prey or by sitting and waiting for it to get close enough to catch. Some species of salamanders simply grab the prey with their powerful jaws, others have sticky tongues that they extend from the mouth to grab their prey. In some species, the tongue is extremely long and can be shot out a good distance, similar to the tongue on a chameleon lizard.
Aquatic hatchlings first consume tiny aquatic crustaceans, zooplankton, and other very small aquatic invertebrates. As they grow larger, the larvae eat larger invertebrates and frog tadpoles.
Some species of California salamanders hatch from eggs that are laid in water. The young begin their lives swimming in water and breathing with gills, like a fish or a frog tadpole. After a period of time they develop four legs and a tail, lose their gills, and move out of the water to live on land, breathing through lungs. When they mature, they return to live in water each year long enough to breed and lay eggs, but they still breathe through lungs so they need to surface to breathe.
Some individuals do not transform into a land form. Instead, they live the rest of their lives in water breathing with gills and reproducing as normal adults. These are called neotenic or paedomorphic.
Southern Torrent Salamanders are very aquatic and spend much time in fast cold streams. They breathe through very small lungs but also get oxygen through their skin, which needs to remain moist.
Young aquatic salamander larvae can be difficult to tell apart from frog tadpoles. Older larvae have gills and legs and long thin bodies which differ from tadpoles.
California species with aquatic and terrestrial life phases are:
California Tiger Salamander
Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander
Southern Long-toed Salamander
California Giant Salamander
Coastal Giant Salamander
Southern Torrent Salamander
All other species of California Salamanders do not live in the water either as juveniles or adults. They live and lay eggs in moist places on land and get their oxygen through their skin, which acts like the inside of a pair of lungs.