Walking up to Plum Creek Nature Center, visitors see a big blue cement creature named Spot. Spot is on our signs, in our playground and ready for the perfect photo op. What kind of creature is Spot? Is it a lizard or a salamander?
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. These two animal types get lumped together quite often, so it is easy to confuse the two. Lizards are reptiles. Will County’s main lizard, found in our sandier preserves, is the sixed-lined racerunner. Salamanders are amphibians. There are a few species found in our wetlands, including blue-spotted salamanders, spotted salamanders and tiger salamanders. Spot at Plum Creek Nature Center is a blue-spotted salamander.
Lizards and salamanders have similar body shapes. They both have longer bodies with long tails, four legs and wide heads. In the case of sixed-lined racerunners and blue-spotted salamanders, they both are colorful, and both include blue! Sixed-line racerunners have six stripes that can be yellow, white and/or blue. Young racerunners have light blue tails that can drop off to distract a hungry predator. Blue-spotted salamanders are navy with bright blue spots along their sides. Once you get past the basic body shape, the characteristics of their bodies will help you tell the difference between the two animals.
Lizards have scales and claws. Their scales act like little shields to protect their bodies. Their sharp claws help them burrow in the ground or climb trees. Salamanders have smooth, wet skin and short toes with no claws. Blue-spotted salamanders have lungs to breath, but they can also absorb oxygen through their smooth skin. They also have little ridges along their sides called costal grooves that help move water over their bodies to stay moist. Salamanders dig underground like lizards, but they also have webbing in their toes to help them with their more aquatic lifestyle.
Babies of lizards and salamanders both fend for themselves from the day they are born. However, they look and grow up very differently. Lizards lay leathery eggs, similar to the texture of a grape. Once the eggs hatch, the babies look like tiny adults. They will keep growing until they reach the same size as adults. In the case of the six-lined racerunner, the babies will lose their blue tails once they are in adulthood.
Salamander eggs are jelly-like and are laid underwater. Once hatched, salamanders start as larvae. Similar to tadpoles, baby salamanders have long, fishy tails. They also have four legs and feathery gills on the outside of their heads to help them breathe underwater. When they have grown to be adults, their tail rounds out and they lose their external gills.
Habitat and time of year are important when figuring out if the animal you see is a lizard or salamander. Salamanders always need to be close to the water to repeat their life cycle. Some salamanders are even fully aquatic! Lizards tend to live in drier areas.
The six-lined racerunner prefers sandy soils with little vegetation. These lizards are the most active in the warmer months, when we see them on the hunt for insects. We may only see blue-spotted salamanders in the spring when they make their migration to ponds for mating and egg laying. After that they will spend their days hiding under logs and underground.
Although they look similar, lizards and salamanders live in different habitats and are equipped with different adaptations to help them survive their environments. Next time you visit Plum Creek Nature Center to hang out with Spot, you will notice it has no claws and smooth skin. Therefore, it must be a salamander!
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.