Added 2 March 2004. Last updated 19 July 2006: added Speleomantes.

A Brief Look
at the



The Plethodontidae are the largest family of salamanders, constituting about twenty genera and over 160 species. Their distribution is mainly in the New World, predominantly in the North but with Bolitoglossa and a few other genera found throughout Central and South America as far as 20 deg S of the Equator. A single family, the cave-dwelling Speleomantes [Hydromantes], are found in France and Italy. Their presence there has been used to claim Europe as the original source of the family: however, the centre of their modern-day distribution now appears to be the Appalachians.

Plethodontid species are considered the most advanced members of the Caudata. All are characterised by the following: lungs usually absent: gills usually absent: nasolabial groove present. They are small in size for the most part (this increasing the available body area for respiration) and their cutaneous respiration (ie breathing through the skin) requires a moist environment. For this reason also, many if not all are normally encountered on cool wet nights. Their life cycles and habitats are however very variable. Although the Bolitoglossini are found in tropical latitudes, the individual salamanders will normally be found in damp, moist and not hot microhabitats.

The family is divided into two subfamilies. The Desmognathinae (three genera , all based in the southern Appalachians) are characterised by the primitive mechanism for opening the mouth: the head is raised together with the upper jaw, while the lower jaw is relatively immobile [Grzimek]. The muscles on the back of the head are well developed. The larvae have gill arches.

The Plethodontinae (all others) open their mouths in the more usual manner, and during early development have fewer than four gill arches. The Plethodontinae are further subdivided into three tribes, based on anatomical differences, as follows:

Plethodontid species have been kept in captivity, although not to the same degree as the larger and better-known members of the Ambystomatidae. Although much work has been done on the North American species, much remains to be learnt about those members of the family found in Latin America, notably Bolitoglossa and its relatives.

Subfamily Desmognathinae    
Desmognathus, Dusky Salamanders Leurognathus, Shovel-Nosed Salamander Phaeognathus, Red Hills Salamander
Subfamily Plethodontinae    
Tribe Bolitoglossini    
Batrachoseps, Slender Salamanders Bolitoglossa, Tropical Lungless Salamanders Bradytriton
Chiropterotriton Cryptotriton Dendrotriton
Hydromantes [Speleomantes], Cave Salamanders Ixalotriton Lineatriton
Nototriton Nyctanolis Oedipina
Parvimolge Pseudoerycea Speleomantes, European Cave Salamanders
Thorius, Pygmy Salamanders    
Tribe Hemidactyliini    
Eurycea, Brook Salamanders Gyrinophilus, Spring Salamanders Haideotriton, Georgia Blind Salamander
Hemidactylium, Four-Toed Salamander Pseudotriton, Mud and Red Salamanders Stereochilus, Many-Lined Salamander
Typhlotriton, Grotto Salamander    
Tribe Plethodontini    
Aneides, Arboreal Salamanders Ensatina, Ensatinas Plethodon, Woodland Salamanders

Subfamily Desmognathinae

Genus Common Name No. of species Distribution Notes
Desmognathus Dusky Salamanders 12 E USA, S Canada  
Leurognathus Shovel-Nosed Salamander 1 SE USA Restricted range.
Phaeognathus Red Hills Salamander 1 SE USA Very elongated species, with over 20 trunk vertebrae and very short limbs. Fossorial, secretive lifestyle: species only discovered in 1960.

Subfamily Plethodontinae

Genus Common Name No. of species Distribution Notes
Tribe Bolitoglossini
Batrachoseps Slender Salamanders 19 North America Elongated animals with up to 21 trunk vertebrae, short limbs and four toes on the feet. Slight basal constriction on tail.
Bolitoglossa Tropical Lungless Salamanders 85 Mexico, C & S America The largest genus of salamanders, and the only salamanders to be widespread in South America. Characterised by 13 costal grooves and a boletid tongue. 
Bradytriton   1    
Chiropterotriton   12 Mexico and Central America Characterised by thick glandular pads on soles of hands and feet, extending to first joints of fingers and toes. Found in mountains at altitudes of 3-4,000m in trees and caves or on the ground. 
Cryptotriton   6 ?  
Dendrotriton   6 ?  
Hydromantes Cave Salamanders  10 USA Large head on rather slender body: tail cylindrical and shorter than body, lacks basal ringed groove. 
Ixalotriton   2    
Lineatriton   3 Mexico   
Nototriton   13    
Nyctanolis   1 Central America   
Oedipina   23 Central and N South America Mainly inhabitants of tropical lowland. Some species are very elongated with a long tail and short limbs. 
Parvimolge   1 Mexico   
Pseudoerycea   36   Mostly terrestrial but some climbers. Large number of species found on Mexican plateau.
Speleomantes   6-7 France, Italy, Corsica and Sardinia European cave salamanders formerly (and sometimes still) considered members of the genus Hydromantes.
Thorius Pygmy Salamanders 24 Mexico  High-altitude dwellers found in trees or on the ground. 
Tribe Hemidactyliini
Eurycea Brook Salamanders 25   Slender, lively salamanders that usually are yellow at least on the belly. Chief habitat is in and around flowing springs, streams and subterranean waters.
Gyrinophilus Spring Salamanders 4 E USA Large, powerful elongated trunk and short tail. Species are found in springs, spring-fed streams, and caves.
Haideotrition Georgia Blind Salamander 1 E USA Characterised by long external gills, slender legs and complete absence of eyes. They are permanent larvae. 
Hemidactylium Four-Toed Salamander 1 E Canada and E USA Characterised by four toes on the feet, ringed groove on base of tail and white ventrum with black spots. It is found in mossy areas next to woods. 
Pseudotriton Mud and Red Salamanders 3   Similar in appearance to Gyrinophilus species: species undergo complete metamorphosis. 
Stereochilus Many-Lined Salamander 1 SE USA Adults have well-developed lateral line on the head. Single species lives in pools and slowly flowing waters in swampy forests.
Typhlotriton Grotto Salamander 1 SE USA Found in and around subterranean waters: larvae live in open and have functional eyes, but later (at or after complete metamorphosis) move into caves.
Tribe Plethodontini
Aneides Arboreal Salamanders 6 USA Despite the name, these are often terrestrial salamanders, with a cylindrical trunk and short limbs: the arboreal species have a flattened body and longer limbs. Other characteristics of the genus include an unpaired intermaxillary and well-developed temporal muscles.
Ensatina Ensatinas 2   Distinguished by bulging eyes and a ringed groove at the base of the tail, which is rounded above and contains poison glands. The species live a terrestrial and semi-fossorial existence.
Plethodon Woodland Salamanders 54 North America Anatomically this genus is characterised by a paired intermaxillary bone. They are largely, but not always, forest dwelling. 

Bibliography - Plethodontidae

There seems to be no one single work (at least outside academic circles) dealing with the family Plethodontidae in its entirety. However, there is information both in print and on the Internet on the individual species and genera, both natural history and captive husbandry, especially of North American species.

Newts & Salamanders - a complete pet owner's manual, Frank Indiviglio, Barrons 1997. Excellent overview of the subject, including remarks on and captive care of several plethodont species.

Keeping and Breeding Amphibians, Chris Mattison, Blandford Press. Good introduction to the subject, including remarks on some of the plethodontids.

The Proper Care of Amphibians, John Coborn, TFH, 1992. Although I have been often critical of Coborn's books in the past - some, notably on lizards, have contained erroneous information - this is not a bad one. It is very useful for an oversight of all the amphibian families and contains some information on many species which are rarely seen in captivity.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, R Conant and J T Collins, Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, Boston/New York 1998.


Index of newt- and salamander-related articles from herpetological magazines.

Tree of Life has a very useful entry on the Family Salamandridae, including the anatomical characteristics.

AmphibiaWeb is a useful source for species lists and has information on some if not most of the species. also has a well-organised and informative set of pages on the Plethodontidae.

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