Western Tiger Salamander

Ambystoma mavortium


written by Jim Mason

Count yourself lucky if you have ever found one of these in the wild. Despite being known to occur all across Kansas, the Western Tiger Salamander can be very hard to find. They spend most of summer and winter in the burrows of other animals or in some similar humid situation where they can keep their skin moist. On top of that, they only emerge at night!  They are more active in spring and fall, when conditions are more to their liking.  In particular, males move to the vicinity of wetlands in fall so as to be ready for the breeding season, which runs from late winter into spring. Females seek out these places during that time.

Tiger Salamanders are very widespread in North America.  Their range extends from the northern Great Plains to northern Mexico and from Idaho to Florida. Curiously, they are not found in the Appalachian Mountains but they are found in the Piedmont area from Florida to New Jersey.

Two similar species occur in Kansas. The species found in most of Kansas is the Western Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium), formerly called the "Barred" Tiger Salamander. In northeastern Kansas you may find the Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum). It has about twice as many yellow spots between its front and hind legs compared to the Western Tiger Salamander and isn't nearly as common.

Western Tiger Salamanders:

  • May live to be 20 years old!
  • Have a perpetual grin on their face.
  • Have four toes on their front feet and five on their back feet.
  • Are the largest terrestrial salamanders in the world - up to 14 inches in length!
  • Prefer to eat earthworms and insects, but will also eat small frogs and baby mice.

Being amphibians, Tiger Salamanders need water to lay their eggs in. However, fish will eat amphibian eggs and young. Temporary pools that only fill during wet weather do not support a fish population, so amphibians prefer these.  Swamps, marshes, vernal pools, old buffalo wallows, wetlands, a roadside ditch that stands water during the spring--all these would look good to a female salamander trying to find a safe place to lay her eggs.

The eggs hatch into a larva that looks much like the adult except for six feathery external gills that extend from either side of the neck.  Normally they will transform into air-breathing adults in late summer of their first year.  But, they will retain their gills into adulthood if the conditions are unfavorable outside their watery birthplace.  This condition is called neoteny.

By the way, these should not be called mudpuppies or waterdogs.  That name properly belongs to a completely different species of salamander (Necturus maculosus), whose range lies primarily east of the Great Plains.