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Salamanders can be charming little creatures with more personality than you might expect. One of their quirks is that you can sometimes see them licking their own eyeballs, which can be surprising if you’re not used to these animals.
Read on to learn more about salamanders, including the answer to “why do salamanders lick their eyes?”
Salamanders may look like lizards, but they are actually amphibians. Salamanders typically have slim bodies with short limbs, blunt snouts, and tails.
There are currently ten classifications of salamander families, and all are under the order Urodela (class: amphibia; phylum: chordata; kingdom: animalia).
Salamanders can be as small as just over one inch from head to tail or as large as six feet long and 145 pounds, which is taller than an average adult male human!
Salamanders have smooth, moist skin without scales. They can be anywhere on the spectrum from drab to nearly fluorescent, and some have patterns.
Species that live in total darkness in caves do not develop pigment and remain translucent.
Salamander skin is thin and permeable. It acts as a respiratory membrane and secretes a protective mucus.
One of the most fascinating things about salamanders is that they can regenerate limbs and other body parts if they are lost or injured. Researchers have been studying this remarkable ability and hope that there may be applications in human medicine.
Salamanders in Literature and Legend
It is unsurprising that the ability to regenerate has fascinated humans for millennia. Also, salamanders frequently live inside dead, rotting logs.
When these logs were gathered for firewood, the salamanders would try to escape the flames. This made it look as though salamanders were born of fire.
Between this and their regenerative capacity, salamanders have a special place in history and society.
Writers as diverse as Pliny the Elder, Saint Augustine, and Isidore of Seville all believed that salamanders could actually extinguish fire. Salamander lore covers many cultures and many centuries.
Giant salamanders appear in Japanese artwork, and a mythological creature that frequently appears in Japanese folk tales strongly resembles a salamander.
Legendary rulers Prester John, the Emperor of India, and Pope Alexander III all reportedly had garments made from salamander skins.
Salamanders, Geckos, and Lizards
People often confuse salamanders, geckos, and lizards, and this is understandable because they do look similar even though salamanders are a completely different species than lizards (a gecko is a lizard).
Some of the differences between salamanders and lizards include:
Breeding: Salamander eggs do not have shells and must be in a moist environment. Lizard eggs have shells and lizards usually lay eggs in nests in the sand.
Habitat: Salamanders are amphibians and must live in water, or at least in very moist conditions. Lizards require very little water and many of them love to lie in the sun.
Trees: Lizards also like to live in trees. Salamanders rarely make their homes in trees.
Skin: Salamander skin is smooth and moist, and salamanders do not have scales. Lizard skin is dry and scaly.
Breathing: Salamanders breathe through their skin, gills, and/or lungs. Lizards breathe through their lungs.
Salamanders as Pets
If you’ve been reading along, you’re probably charmed by salamanders – they are adorable! There is, however, quite a bit to consider if you’re planning on keeping a salamander as a pet.
As explained above, salamanders are amphibians and they need to be in a moist environment. This means that you’ll need to get and maintain a tank for your salamander friend.
Some salamanders, known as terrestrial salamanders, prefer a tank set up to replicate a terrestrial environment. They do still need significant humidity, and a damp substrate with moss can provide that humidity.
Salamanders often prefer darker conditions, but if possible, you should try to replicate natural, seasonal light cycles from your salamander’s original environment. Use a low-wattage fluorescent light if possible.
The terrestrial tank should also have shaded and light areas, a layer of gravel or soil, and shelters made from logs or rocks. Terrestrial salamanders love to hide, so you can include a few different kinds of shelters in the tank.
The salamanders will need water both to drink and to maintain humidity in the cage. Most terrestrial salamanders do not swim well, so it is recommended that you use a shallow water dish and place rocks or sticks in the dish as well.
Other salamander species are aquatic, or at least primarily aquatic. Aquatic salamanders obviously need a different kind of tank than terrestrial salamanders.
A pH of 6.5 to 7.5 is considered ideal for both the soil and the water in the salamander’s tank. The water should be a relatively cool 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
A submersible aquarium heater can be used to maintain an appropriate temperature for the salamanders, but other artificial light sources should not be used. They can dry out the salamanders, and this is dangerous to their health.
The water in the salamander tank should be dechlorinated if you are using tap water. You can also use commercially bottled spring water, but not distilled water.
An aquatic tank will need to be cleaned regularly. Salamanders are known to excrete a lot of ammonia in their waste, and this can quickly build to toxic levels in a covered tank.
Salamanders eat crickets, earthworms, and other invertebrates, including beetles, moths, sow bugs, and certain caterpillars. You can catch many of these in the wild and they will be better for your pet than farmed ones.
Some salamanders, including most terrestrial species, will only accept live food. This can be a challenge if you are squeamish!
You will enjoy having a salamander as a pet, and you’ll get to know it well. One of the things that you may notice about your salamander is that it seems to lick its eyes.
Why Do Salamanders Lick Their Eyes?
You have probably noticed that your salamander has bulging eyes and does not have eyelids. This means that there is nothing to protect the eyeball or keep it moist.
It also means that the salamander cannot blink. Humans, and many other species, blink involuntarily (and frequently!).
One of the primary benefits of blinking is that it clears miniscule particles of dust and debris off the eyeball. This is both a comfort measure and a safety measure, as it prevents the surface of the eye from being scratched by these foreign bodies.
Blinking also moistens and lubricates the surface of the eye by releasing a tear film. This keeps the surface of the eyeball smooth, which allows light to properly focus and vision to remain sharp.
Salamanders cannot do any of these things because they do not have eyelids. They do have long, nimble tongues, and they use these tongues to lick their eyeballs.
Licking the eyeball serves much the same function as blinking does. It removes any foreign particles from the surface of the eye.
It also keeps the eyeball moist, which keeps it healthy and allows it to focus more clearly.
So, the answer to the question of why salamanders lick their eyes is because they don’t have eyelids and can’t blink. Salamanders need to find other ways to clean and protect their eyeballs, and that’s why they lick them.