Added 17 August 2003. Last updated 19 June 2006: updated text and all species entries.

Newts and Salamanders of Europe

Genus: Speleomantes - Cave Salamanders

The Speleomantes genus are the only members of the lungless Plethodontidae family to be found in Europe, the rest being distributed mainly in America. The species are characterised by wide heads, large eyes and five toes linked by webbing. As with all plethodontid salamanders they also have a nasolabial groove between nostrils and upper lip. The tail is shorter than the snout-vent length. The Cave Salamanders inhabit mountainous regions where they are found near caves or wet fissures (not solely within caves as their common name might suggest). They are only found in cool, moist shady habitats and cannot tolerate high temperatures. Thanks to their webbed feet, prehensile tails and a sticky substance secreted from their epidermis they can scale vertical rock surfaces and also plants. These salamanders prey on arthopods and molluscs, catching them with their tongues in much the same way as a chameleon does, except that the tongue ends in a flattened adhesive disc. Cave Salamanders lay eggs from which hatch fully-developed young, bypassing the external larval stage.

Nöllert & Nöllert note that the differences between the species are fairly minimal and that individuals can be hard to assign unless their place of origin known. Coloration plays a certain role in identification, as does to a degree the canthus rostralis (referred to in the notes by the plural abbreviation canthi), this being a slight ridge separating the top and sides of the snout in some reptiles and amphibians. The canthi of species from the mainland are more delineated than those of Sardinian species which are more rounded. Similarly, the digits of Sardinian species are more rounded at the tips than those of other species. Males can be distinguished from females by their upper jaw distinctly overhanging the lower, the long teeth at the front of the upper jaw, the tiny tentacle associated with the nasolabial groove and the gland under the chin: they are also usually the smaller of the sexes. Females have a broader and longer body but fewer teeth. Reproduction takes place on land, mainly between March and May. After an approach by the male, a typical courtship ritual and finally the laying and taking up of the spermatophore, the female lays up to 14 but more usually 5-7 eggs, about 5mm in diameter, in a cleft in the rocks. She watches the clutch, which can take up to a year to hatch: Arnold suggests that the limited cannibalism by the mother which may take place is due to this long wait and the fact that she does not otherwise feed during this time. The young are born as fully-formed salamanders about 2cm in length, and stay with the mother for a while longer. One species, S. ambrosii, is known to live for up to 17 years.

The genus Speleomantes was formerly classified as Hydromantes until renamed by Dubois in 1984. Older literature may still refer to them as Hydromantes, to which genus (found in the USA) they are closely related. The common name "French Cave Salamander" was formerly considered to belong to S. strinatii: this is now applied to S. ambrosii, and S. strinatii appears to have been relegated to the subspecies S. a. strinatii. All other members of the family are distributed in North America and the northerly parts of South America, and the European members are considered to be relicts of the Tertiary period [Nöllert & Nöllert].

Speleomantes ambrosii, French Cave Salamander Speleomantes flavus, Yellowish Cave Salamander Speleomantes genei, Sardinian Cave Salamander
Speleomantes imperialis, Scented Cave Salamander Speleomantes italicus, Italian Cave Salamander Speleomantes supramontis, French Cave Salamander

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
S. ambrosii French Cave Salamander, Ambrosi's Cave Salamander [F: Spélerpes brun: D: Französischer Höhlensalamander]

NW Italy as far SE as the R. Magra: SE France 11-12 cm This species lives in isolated populations, which may account for the relatively large number of subspecies for such a localised creature. Within its ranges it may be quite common Description: snout has distinct canthi between the sides and top; tongue is shorter than in other species of its genus. Toes may be relatively pointed. Coloration: brown to black, with pattern of flecks, marbling or striping with grey, green, yellow, pink or darker red or brown, although patternless individuals also occur. Ventrally often dark with lighter markings. Reproduction: males reach sexual maturity in 4, females in 5, years.
S. a. ambrosii NW Italy (Appennine Liguria in the area around La Spezia between Pignone and Portovenere [Cinqueterre area])
S. a. argentatus NW Italy (Varatella in the Savoy Province)
S. a. bonzanoi NW Italy (area around Imperia in the Maritime Alps), SE France (Maritime Alps)
S. a. ligusticus NW Italy (Appennine Liguria in the hill country between Genoa and Rapallo)
S. a. strinatii NW Italy (W Liguria in the area), SE France (in the Départments of Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Individuals in some populations in this area resemble those of the subspecies S. italicus gormani [Nöllert & Nöllert]. Some authorities treat this as a separate species [Arnold].
S. flavus Yellowish Cave Salamander, Mont Albo Cave Salamander [D: Gelblicher Höhlensalamander]

NE Sardinia, between Siniscola and Lula, including Monte Albo in the Nuoro district Up to 13½- 15cm Description: snout rounded without distinct canthi between the sides and top; fingers stubby. This species has a longer tongue than those on the mainland. Coloration: dorsally yellow, grey-green, brown or black, often with contrasting spots. Some animals may be largely yellow, others dark with pink legs. Ventrally usually whitish.
S. genei
Sardinian Cave Salamander, Gene's Cave Salamander [F: Salamandre cavernicole de Sardaigne: D: Sardischer Höhlensalamander] SW Sardinia in the Domusnova region in the district of Cagliari. 11cm Relatively common within its habitat, occurring at altitudes up to 650m. Description: smallest and usually darkest European cave salamander. Has a shorter tongue than other Sardinian species though still longer than mainland species. May have slight canthi on snout. Coloration: dorsally brown to blackish, often with small scattered greenish, whitish or sometimes yellowish spots. Ventrally white, often with dark speckling.
S. imperialis Scented Cave Salamander  SE Sardinia (between GairoTaquisara in Nuoro Province and Villasalto and Villaputzu in Cagliari Province) 12½cm The common name of this salamander derives from its habit of releasing a scent when handled. Description: similar to S. flavus. Coloration: dorsally purple brown, usually with scattered yellow, greenish or gold spots or marbling. Ventrally pale, adults lack spots. 
S. italicus Italian Cave Salamander [F: Salamandre cavernicole d'Italie: D: Sardischer Höhlensalamander] Italy (from C Italy in the area of Appenine Umbro Marchigiano north as far as Tuscany and the river Magra) 11-12 cm



Similar to S. ambrosii, with which it hybridises in a narrow part of its range. Found from 80-1,600m altitude, mostly on limestone: often very common [Arnold]. Coloration: usually dark with red or yellowish spots or marblings, but in NW part of range more variable; belly generally dark.
S. i. italicus Appennino Umbro Marchigiano NW to the Appennino Tosco Emiliano
S. i. gormani E Carrara and the Modena Appennines 
S. supramontis
Supramontane Cave Salamander E Sardinia (areas around Orosei, Dorgali, Oliena, Orgosolo and Baunei) 13½cm  Formerly considered a subspecies of H. italicus but raised to full species level in 1996. See the entry in the Amphibian Species of the World Database. It is found at altitudes of 100-1,360m. This species may be encountered outside caves in places with an abundance of moss, where it may reach high densities [Arnold]. Description: similar to S. flavus. Coloration: brown to black with yellow, grey-green or olive-green spots or marbling: some individuals may be largely yellowish or greenish. Ventrally usually whitish with dark spots.  Reproduction: young reach sexual maturity in 2-3 years.


Die Amphibien Europas, Andreas and Christel Nöllert, Franckh-Kosmos, Stuttgart 1992. Outstanding nature guide to every species of amphibian found in Europe.

Collins Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Britain & Europe, E N Arnold, J A Burton and D W Ovenden, HarperCollins, London 1978. For years this has been an invaluable guide to the English speaker, although a few of the taxonomic details were in need of revision. This was finally accomplished with the revised edition of 2002/4.

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