As the forests settle into autumn, one of the most beautiful and enigmatic animals returns to the shaded corners of our woodlands: the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra).
This spectacular Urodelan (Urodela is the order herpetologists use to classify tailed amphibians) has an elongated, somewhat thickset and flattened body covered in very shiny skin with a stunning black and yellow colour pattern.
A salamander on a pile of autumn leaves
Endowed with noticeably short, thick legs, the fire salamander moves very close to the ground. Its bulky head is rounded and flattened in shape with conspicious bulging eyes and two lateral protuberances that contain its parotid glands. As far as salamanders go, it is a large species: some fire salamanders can grow to 30 centimetres in length.
Given its striking appearance, the salamander has been linked to countless legends since time immemorial. Once autumn has found its stride, this amphibian resumes its activity after spending the summer in a dormant state, hiding away in its lair to avoid the driest months of the year.
Salamanders mate in November when the brooks and springs bubble back to life, and moisture once again penetrates the depths of the forest. Under these conditions – ideal for the amphibian’s development – it is easier to observe this close relative of frogs and newts than at any other time of year. When visiting our damp forests, we're very likely to come across a fire salamander.
Encountering a salamander is a truly joyous occasion for nature lovers. The bold colours of this amphibian and its dazzling appearance have made the fire salamander one of the best-known members of the Iberian fauna.
The patterns of the salamander, however, are not random. As a result, herpetologists differentiate between five subspecies of fire salamanders on the Iberian peninsula. They do so based on the colour combination of their skin, whether they sport yellow stripes or spots on black, or the reverse, black speckles on a lemony shade of yellow.
A salamander perches on a rock in the forest
In any case, and regardless of these specific distinctions, the reason why the salamander sports these strikingly bold colours – which do not allow the animal to blend in with its surroundings, instead drawing immediate attention to the salamander as it wanders through the forest – is a matter of survival.
Given its short legs, the salamander moves slowly and laboriously, making it impossible to swiftly flee from a potential predator. Instead, the fire salamander developed an appearance that sends a warning to its natural foes, letting them know that what awaits is a toxic meal.
Should a fox, marten, or badger be so desperately hungry that it would dare to put a salamander in its mouth, it would spit it back out within seconds and flee amid snorts and sneezes.
Although salamanders are not poisonous and dangerous to humans, they do secrete a toxic substance from their skin when they feel threatened. This substance – similar to the sting of a nettle – causes an intense burning sensation that none of its enemies will ever forget or wish to endure again.
A salamander in the palm of a hand
Exclusively a forest dweller, the salamander lives in the damp forests of northern Spain, usually concealed behind rocks or moss, cascading water or the crevices between wet stones. It feeds on worms, slugs, snails, and insects. Although the salamander seeks out aquatic environments, and frequents streams and springs, it does not actually live in the water – like newts do – except during the larval stage.
A stealthy, nocturnal animal, the salamander goes into hiding in spring – as previously mentioned – and re-emerges in autumn to mate and defend its territory. Salamanders lay their eggs between December and February. They can live up to 20 years.
Fire salamanders are classified as a threatened species and are protected under the law. Their populations are dwindling across Europe due to climate change-induced habitat degradation. Capturing and keeping these amphibians is strictly forbidden and can incur significant fines.