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The Secret Life of Tiger Salamanders

Did you know Illinois has a state amphibian? It’s the tiger salamander.

Two tiger salamanders in a whole in the moist ground.
Two tiger salamanders. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Have you ever seen one? Most people answer no when asked this question. Why is that? Let’s find out!

What is a salamander?

Salamanders are fascinating creatures that look like lizards at first glance. They have four short legs, rounded snouts and tails. Some are long and thin, while others have long, chunky bodies.

They may have stripes, spots or patterns, and they can be many different colors. While they may all look a little different, there is one thing they all have in common: They are amphibians. 

What are amphibians?

The word amphibian means “double life.” No, salamanders aren’t secret, undercover agents. They’re way cooler than that. For amphibians, double life means that they begin life in the water (aquatic) and eventually leave the water to live on land (terrestrial).

All amphibians have moist, smooth skin, lay eggs without a shell and are cold blooded. They breathe through their lungs and — how cool is this — their skin! 

Eastern tiger salamanders 

Illinois is home to 20 species of salamanders. Tiger salamanders are the largest species, growing to be 7 inches to 8 inches long. Splotchy yellow spots cover their black-brown bodies. You can find them in woodlands, swamps, prairies and even old farm fields near ponds throughout Illinois and right here in Will County 

Vernal pool beginnings

A wetland in a forest with grasses and other vegetation growing in it.
A vernal pool. (Photo via Shutterstock)

In early spring, melting snow and spring rains collect in low areas to make temporary ponds called vernal pools. Warming temperatures and increased moisture signal adult tiger salamanders to emerge from underneath the leaves, logs and soil where they spent the winter and make their way to the vernal pools.

Once there, the males and females will meet and mate. Afterward, females will lay clumps of 20 to 50 jelly-covered eggs in the vernal pools. She’ll attach them to twigs, leaves and plant stems under the water. She may lay up to 1,000 eggs in a season! 

Ferocious larvae

A cluster of salamander eggs attached to a branch in water.
Salamander eggs. (Photo via Shutterstock)

After three to four weeks, the eggs hatch and small larvae emerge. Larvae do not look like adult salamanders. They have flat, broad tails and feathery gills that stick out on the outside of their bodies. These gills are used to breathe underwater.

The larvae do not have legs. They have limb buds, small bumps where their legs will eventually grow. Salamander larvae are vernal pool predators. They grow rapidly while feasting on small pond insects and mosquito larvae.

Growing up

A salamander larva in water surrounded by vegetation.
A salamander larva. (Photo via Shutterstock)

As salamander larvae grow, their bodies change. Legs grow out of their limb buds, their tails thin out and their external, feathery gills fall off. By late summer, they have fully grown lungs and strong legs to carry them out of the water and onto land, where they will begin the second part of their life.


Life on land

Life on land can be dangerous! Luckily, tiger salamanders have some more cool adaptations that make life a little safer. To start, they’re nocturnal. They spend their days buried in cool, moist soil or hidden underneath logs and leaf litter. Under cover of darkness, they venture out of their safe hiding places to hunt for worms and insects to eat. 

Their color and spot pattern helps them blend right in with the leaves and soil. Being camouflaged and nocturnal helps them hide them from many hungry predators — and people.  


Words to know

Permeable: Allowing liquid or gasses to pass through it.

Snout: The projecting nose and mouth of an animal.

Terrestrial: Living or growing on land.

Vernal: Related to or occurring in the spring. 


To avoid drying out, tiger salamanders must keep their skin moist at all times. Being nocturnal keeps them out of the hot, drying rays of the sun, but is not their only way to stay moist. Like all amphibians, they have thin, permeable skin. Moisture and oxygen from the environment can travel through their skin. This amazing ability helps them absorb moisture from the soil when they are in danger of being too dry. It can even help them breathe when dug deep into the soil!

The most amazing adaption of the tiger salamander is its ability to regrow some body parts. If they lose a limb or their tail due to an injury or during an escape from a predator, they can grow a new one! 

Easy to miss

A tiger salamander in its enclosure.
Stop by Isle a la Cache Museum to see Ghillie the tiger salamander. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

Now that you know a little more about the somewhat secretive life of the tiger salamander, you can see how they can be easily overlooked. If you’d like to improve your chances of seeing a salamander, stop by Isle a la Cache Museum to catch a glimpse of Ghillie.

Ghillie the tiger salamander is temporarily living at Isle a la Cache while his permanent home at Hidden Oaks Nature Center is being built. Like other salamanders, Ghillie spends his days hidden, but it’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of his nose sticking out from his rock hideout. 


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