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The Alpensalamander - A Friendly Little Fellow

Alpine SalamanderAlpensalamander portrait

When hiking in the Alps or the prealpine ranges we often encounter typical animals like ibexes, chamois or marmots. We also notice birds, alpine choughs, ravens or the huge birds of prey like the golden eagle. Some of us will take photographs of butterflies or grasshoppers and sometimes even lizards make it to the pages of SP. But rarely do amphibians get into the limelight, most likely because of the clandestine life they lead. This little article is dedicated to the Alpine Salamander (Salamandra atra) which will be referred to here with its German name: the Alpensalamander.

Some of you will have encountered the Alpensalamander on your rambles through the Alps but then - many of you won't. It is considered an endangered species though in the regions it occurs, it can be rather common. Like any amphibian it lives in humid surroundings, near creeks or on wet meadows and pastures. Some Alpensalamanders even like the big scree fields of the limestone ranges and occur at their edges, where vegetation takes over from rock.

Distribution of Salamandra atra

The Alpensalamander is a slow little fellow - it moves at little more than turtle-speed. But lacking the turtle's shell it needs other strategies to survive. It is active during dusk and dawn and also at night and prefers to hide beneath the vegetation. Since it is a small animal - females reach up to 15cm (6 inches) a batch of long grass suffices to hide it completely. The Alpensalamander is slim and has a strikingly human form. It seems to have been the role model for Gollum in the Lord of The Rings.

However, though it shares Gollum's clandestine life, it is hard to see it share his character. It feeds on snails, spiders and any kind of insects which are slow enough to get caught in slow motion movement but it is not probable that you will catch a salamander on the hunt. Its own enemies are alpine choughs, magpies and the European viper (Vipera berus). It protects itself - like its close relative the Fire Salamander - with a secretion from the glands which cover its body.
Fire SalamanderFire Salamander, close relative of the Alpensalamander

The Alpensalamander occurs at elevations between 1000m and 2400m. Some specimen have been found at 2800m! This habitat forced the species to develop a special kind of reproduction. Unlike other amphibians the Alpensalamander does not lay eggs. The larvae wouldn't survive the freezing cold in lakes at the aformentioned elevations. Therefore the uteri (an Alpensalamander female has two uteri) serve as lake-like habitat for the larvae to develop, first with gills which later make room for lungs. The development takes two years at lower elevations and three years above 1800m.

The Alpensalamander only comes out of hiding at daytime, if the weather is humid. Humidity has to be above 85% which means that you'll only encounter the little fellow during rain, fog or both. Sometimes, after a nightly downpour you will have a salamander cross your trail in the early morning, which when most of the animals are sighted.

A Wrestling Match

Wrestlemania The Cheek-to-Cheek Tango position

Speaking of myself for a minute - I have always been envious of my sister in law who kept coming back with blurry salamander pictures from her vacations. What I didn't realize was that sighting salamanders also means hiking in bad weather and that there really was no reason for envy at all. This year I have been blessed with half a dozen encounters - which tells a lot about the weather I had to walk through! Salamander shots tend to be blurry as the animals are black and prefer to move under overcast skies. There's never much light when you try to get a portrait.

During my recent Dolomite vacation - during a bad weather period (sic!) - we had to forgo climbing the summits. On one particular day we decided to hike out the Fanes Valley from Cortina d'Ampezzo with the slight hope of better weather during the day. In that case we planned to reach one of the Fanes Alms (Big or Small) and at least get views from the surrounding mountains. As we started from the parking lot along a closed paved road, suddenly Judith shouted out: "What is this?"

Right in the middle of the road a tiny black sculpture seemed to be standing and as I got closer (of course I had walked by noticing nothing) I realized that here was my first Alpensalamander. And the second as well. One atop the other. First we suspected indecent behaviour (in the middle of the road!) but we soon found out that something different seemed to be going on. One of the little guys was simply relaxing on top of the other's head. Of course I took out my camera and started to document this for posterity.

Light was low so I tried the flash but immediately found that my Salamanders didn't like it. Something like a pained look appeared in their big black eyes. First they didn't move but as they got used to us and the clicking of the camera they sprang into action. "Action" and "springing" are words which don't quite describe what really happened. We soon found out that we had interrupted a wrestling match. A slow motion battle royal. Up to now we are not sure what the rules of the game were. Somehow the goal seemed to get on top of the other and for the other to prevent just this. On the other hand choreography seemed to be important - there was the cheek-to-cheek Tango position and also the Ying-and-Yang position. At one time Greco-Roman wrestling rules seemed to be valid as one of the salamanders threw the other on its back. But judge for yourself:

Wrestlemania Take-a-Ride
Wrestlemania Getting-a-Grip
Wrestlemania Cheek-to-Cheek
Wrestlemania Grip-the-Throat
Wrestlemania Belly-Rub
Wrestlemania Turn-on-Back
Wrestlemania Suspicious-Eye
Wrestlemania Ying-and-Yang
Wrestlemania Back-on-Top

With big smiles on our faces we watched to two sportsmen. The match went on for minutes and I snapped about 50 shots. Finally - we wanted to get along - we decided to go. Judith decided that the road was not the right place for an unattended wrestling match. Though it was closed, mountain bikers or logging trucks might drive by. She grabbed a large leaf from the next bush and somehow manoeuvred the first Salamander onto it and over to a ditch. The other was close to follow. Somehow we were sure they would return to their arena on the road but this was as much as we could do for them. We went on to spend our day on the Fanes plateau in decently nice weather.

As we returned we were happy that we did not see any black roadkill in the place where the match had taken place. Hopefully the two little guy will reach the end of their life expectancy of ten years!
Alpine SalamanderAlpensalamander says Good-Bye!

External Link

Salamander Research Project

A Short Movie


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-19 of 19

selinunte01 - Nov 22, 2009 8:34 am - Voted 10/10

What a nice portrait

about those black fellows. I often meet them on june or early july hikes in the bavarian / austrian alps when it is WET ...
and they LOVE to wrestle .....

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 23, 2009 2:45 am - Hasn't voted

Re: What a nice portrait

Hehe - my sister in law also says she witnessed a wrestling match this summer. It's fun to watch since they seem to take it so seriously.

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 23, 2009 2:46 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Cool article

Thanks - you know how it is: you meet somebody, get interested and google him. Then you feel even more interested ...


phlipdascrip - Nov 22, 2009 7:40 pm - Voted 10/10

Alpine Salamander research project

Gangolf, do you know of the university of Salzburg's public Salamander distribution research project?

"The main goal is to map occurrence, population- size and development of the Alpine Salamander. [...] First, we will establish an oral history of Alpine Salamander observations in the past 50 years by conducting interviews in the local community, such as alpinists [...] to preserve their well-versed local knowledge of the Alpine Salamander. Second we will check these regions for Alpensalamander observations ourselves to explore their habitat and their ecology."

You can contribute by reporting your sightings through their website.

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 23, 2009 2:46 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Alpine Salamander research project

Will do!


goofball - Nov 23, 2009 9:42 pm - Voted 10/10

very cool

lizards are funny. love to see 'em do their "push ups" here in the desert when they want to look all big n tough. ha !

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 24, 2009 2:52 am - Hasn't voted

Re: very cool

Not much of a lizard - more related to toads and newts. Thanks.


suddendescent - Nov 24, 2009 2:17 pm - Voted 10/10

Just like home !

Fine article !

Strange to note that I once saw a salamander of a dark blueish colour (with whiteish or yellowish spots) in north central Quebec (in the vicinity of the town of Chapais). In considering the actual distribution of such critters I surmuise that the critter in question was beyond the northern limit of its distribution. Although such critters in passing winter below the ice in a pond can theoretically have a more northernly distribution than suspected...(the water below the ice is of the same temperature no matter where the critter is...That also applies for altitude...)

I guess that the same rationality can be applied to the other amphibians which hibernate below water.

I tend to do some amateur prospection during the summer months and since I go into the woods alone I often am followed by creatures most of which are curious. Although occasionally curiousity is not the driving imputous of some creatures which in seeeing a moron like myself in a state of casial abandonement may represent a potential threat. Thus it is always wiser to tackle the wilderness as a group.

Since cold lengthy winters may be sifficently harsh to eliminate many (apart from the hibernators)I surmise that some ground level wildlife may priveledge migration if in the incapacity to hibernate. While this is fairly obvious , I always had questions on the migrational behaviour of the gigantopithecus ape that is often observed without being formally recognised as truely existing...(hibernators ?...)

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 25, 2009 2:31 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Just like home !

Thanks! These guys after all were not migrating, they were in their natural habitat which is something like 3000ft - 7500ft. Some of them get washed down by torrential creeks to as low as 150ft and at their speed will have a long time getting beck up to where they belong.

Ejnar Fjerdingstad

Ejnar Fjerdingstad - Nov 24, 2009 5:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Very interesting,

personally I have only seen a single Alpensalamander, near the Amberger hut in Stubai in 1955!

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 25, 2009 2:33 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Very interesting,

I'm afraid - after I saw some youtube movies - that we really watched them during their mating ritual. Why one would do that in the middle of the road beats me but when testosterone is rushing through your veins you gotta do what you gotta do :-)


DrJonnie - Nov 30, 2009 7:39 am - Voted 10/10


Hi Gangolf,
loved your write-up. We once saw a Fire Salamander on the trail up to the Renclusa refugio in the Spanish Pyrenees. It was dark at around 4.00 am and the creature tried to hide from our headlamps under a rock. Do you know if they are normally nocturnal? I've never seen one during the day.
cheers Johnnie

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Nov 30, 2009 10:43 am - Hasn't voted

Re: nocturnal?

German wikipedia says they are nocturnal - however, the one which you see in the article walked around at 2 p.m. north of Kranjska Gora. They simply like to hide - or what would you do if you were small and slooooooow ?


DrJonnie - Dec 1, 2009 10:11 am - Voted 10/10


Hi Gangolf,

I guess in Spain its unlikely to be moist enough in June during the day to encourage the little chaps out of their hidey holes so strolling about pre-dawn is their only option maybe.

cheers Johnnie


ferdinandverboom - Dec 1, 2009 10:43 am - Hasn't voted

bad weather companion

Once I went back from a hike in the worst weather ever and dozens of these black friends were on the road. It was nearby Wassen in late june, Switzerland.

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Dec 1, 2009 2:44 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: bad weather companion

Yes, these guys simply cherish bad weather. It's in their genes...


saman - Dec 2, 2009 2:32 am - Hasn't voted

Salamander invasion:)

A few years ago we saw more than ten of them in the Julian Alps, somewhere below the Montasio. It was on a rainy and foggy morning after a rainy day and night:)
There were salamanders on the path at every fifth or sixth step. We really had to be careful not to step on them.


CheesySciFi - Dec 11, 2009 11:23 am - Voted 10/10

Salamander fight!

I didn't even know that the Alps had salamanders! Guess I learn something new every day. Thanks for the article.

Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Dec 12, 2009 5:43 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Salamander fight!

You're very welcome! Thanx in return!

Viewing: 1-19 of 19



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