Last updated 5 March 2005: added link to A Brief Look at the Family Sirenidae.

A Rough Guide to


What follows is a rough guide to the various families of newts and salamanders around the world. This is technically known as taxonomic classification. Apart from the interest value, it may help you when trying to ascertain care requirements for a particular species.

Newts and salamanders together form the Order Urodela, also known as Caudata. This order is a member of Class Amphibia, while frogs and toads and caecilians form the other two orders of the class, Anura and Caecilia respectively. Bartlett gives three suborders that are sometimes used to group the families, so for information's sake I have followed this system.

The term Old World is used here according to standard usage to include Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The term New World denotes the Americas.

The italicised name in brackets is the proper Latin scientific name.

Suborder Cryptobranchoidae

Giant Salamanders (Cryptobranchidae: 3 species)

The Cryptobranchidae contains only three species, although all three are impressive: the Giant Salamanders of Japan and China, and the Hellbender of the USA. The Asian species are endangered and protected (CITES I), occurring only in a few areas, while the Hellbender is also subject to some concern due to environmental pressures. All live in clear flowing water in mountain streams and rivers. They are considered primitive: for example, fertilisation is external rather than internal as in most other salamanders.

A Brief Look at the Cryptobranchidae

Asiatic Salamanders (Hynobiidae: 35 species)

A family of average-sized salamanders characterised by very small or absent lungs. This restricts them to living in or near cool streams where oxygen levels are normally high, although they are normally terrestrial. Unusually, some species have claws. The range of the Siberian Salamander, Salamandrella keyserlingi, extends into Eastern Europe, but all others are found in Asia as far east as Japan and Taiwan. As with the Cryptobranchidae, fertilisation is external. There seems to be little in print about this family, and in the books I have looked at only Indiviglio covers them in any detail.

A Brief Look at the Hynobiidae

Suborder Salamandoidrae

Newts and Salamanders (Salamandridae: >60 species)

A diverse family distributed throughout Europe and some parts of N. America and SE Asia. It is hard to make any generalisations about this group, but most of its members are linked by the need to return to water during the breeding season. However, some species have adapted to become either totally terrestrial or totally aquatic. Newts in particular tend to enter ponds to breed in the spring and then leave the water in the summer, and during their aquatic phase often develop fins and foot webbing. Salamanders can be generally considered more terrestrial.

A Guide to the Family Salamandridae

Mole Salamanders and Axolotl (Ambystomatidae: 35 species)

An exclusively N. American family, if one considers Mexico to be part of N. America. Mattison considers this group to be the rough equivalent of the European-centred Salamandridae, although he points out that in their aquatic phase the various Ambystomatidae species do not develop aquatic characteristics as do the newts. Neoteny is not unusual in this family, the most obvious example being the Axolotl.

A Brief Look at the Family Ambystomatidae

Pacific Giant Salamanders (Dicamptodontidae: 8 species)

A recently created family whose members were formerly considered part of the Ambystomatidae. There are two genera. All 8 species live in cool mountain streams on the northwest coast of North America.

Lungless Salamanders (Plethodontidae: 245 species)

This is the largest family of the Class Urodela, with the majority occurring in North America. As their name implies, they respire through their skin and do not possess true lungs. Most are terrestrial, but the S. American genus Bolitoglossa is arboreal. There are two species of this family in Europe. In N. America particularly, several species are cave or underground water dwellers.

A Brief Look at the Family Plethodontidae

Amphiumas (Amphiumidae: 3 species)

Similar to the above, both in their N. American distribution and general body shape, except that the Amphiumidae (aka "Congo Eels") have four small, almost vestigial limbs, and lack the external gills of the Sirenidae. The three species are distinguished from one another by the number of toes on each limb: one, two or three. All are almost totally aquatic.

A Brief Look at the Family Amphiumidae

Proteids (Proteidae: 6 species)

An unusual family, comprising two genera, one of the mudpuppies (5 species) and the other the single species of Olm. All have external gills and lungs (in the Olm, only in the adults) and are aquatic.

Suborder Sirenoidea

Sirens (Sirenidae: 3 species)

Another entirely N. American family. The three species resemble eels with very small forelimbs, no hindlimbs and external gills. The two larger species grow to 2-2½ ft respectively, although the smaller is only about 6" long. They are all totally aquatic. Little else is known about this family, and there is obviously room for amateur herpetologists to make a contribution to our stock of knowledge here.

A Brief Look at the Family Sirenidae

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