New York Natural Heritage Program
Tiger Salamander
Ambystoma tigrinum (Green, 1825)
Amphibians

General Description [-]
The tiger salamander is a large, hardy salamander with a long tail with compressed sides, wide head, yellow lower lip, and many irregular yellow or tan blotches on a dark body (Gibbs et al. 2007).

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The tiger salamander is the largest terrestrial salamander in New York. Adults can reach total lengths of more than 12 in. (30 cm), but they are typically 6.0-8.5 in. (15-22 cm) with a snout-to-vent length of 3.5-5.5 in. (9-13 cm) (Gibbs et al. 2007; NatureServe 2009). The salamanders are stocky with 11-14 costal grooves, a broad head, yellow chin, small eyes, and tubercules on the soles of the feet. Colors vary, but individuals of the subspecies of tiger salamander found in New York, the eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum), often have a body that is dark brown, almost black, with irregular yellow to olive blotches. Larvae have a broad head, rounded snout, three pairs of large bushy gills, vomerine teeth in a U-shaped pattern, and a broad dorsal fin extending to the axilla region (Petranka 1998; NatureServe 2009). The color of metamorphs resembles that of adults, and eastern tiger salamanders develop their adult pattern soon after metamorphosis (Bishop 1941). Eggs are 2-3 mm in diameter (Petranka 1998), and the number of eggs per egg mass is variable. On Long Island, one set of nine egg masses had an average of 38 eggs per mass, and another set of 14 egg masses had an average of 52 eggs per mass (Bishop 1941). When egg masses are first laid they are small and firm, averaging approximately 55 x 70 mm, but later they swell and become fragile and loose (Petranka 1998).

Behavior [-]
Adult tiger salamanders spend most of their lives underground in small mammal burrows or burrows that they themselves have dug. They are strong diggers, having robust bodies and hardened toe-tips (Gibbs et al. 2007). Typically they dig their own burrows for short-term refuges and use burrows of small mammals for longer-term refuges. They seem to suffer high predation from shrews while in these burrows (Madison and Farrand 1998). Individuals tend to occupy small upland areas and often stay within the same 32-107 sq. ft. (3-10 sq. m) area for months at a time (Gibbs et al. 2007). During a short-term (up to one year) radio telemetry study of 27 adult tiger salamanders from four ponds on Long Island, Madison and Farrand (1998) found that individuals remained in their preferred burrow system for an average of 83 days before moving to another burrow system. The average distance traveled from a pond was 60 m, and the maximum distance traveled from a pond was 286 m. Although some salamanders did not move far, others made major movements in spring and/or fall, indicating they are highly adaptive and can make major movements across the landscape as needed. However, during a more recent, in-depth, and longer-term (2004-2008) drift-fence/pitfall trapping and telemetry study of 66 adults and 64 metamorphs from three ponds on Long Island, Madison and Titus (2009) found greater movement of both adults and metamorphs than the smaller past study. Average metamorph distances from the three ponds were 55 m, 44 m, and 122 m, respectively. The differences were thought to be due to the different distances to suitable habitat at the ponds. Average adult distances from the three ponds, pooled together by gender, were 105 m (females) and 49 m (males). Females moved significantly farther from ponds than males. Although the salamanders can make overland movements between burrows at any time throughout the year, usually during a rain event (Bishop 1941; Petranka 1998), typically they are only seen when they are migrating to and from breeding ponds. The salamanders breed earlier in the spring than most other amphibians in the state, often leaving their burrows and migrating to breeding ponds as soon as pond edges are free of ice (Gibbs et al. 2007) between late January and mid-March. However, in recent years migrations have started as soon as late November (Madison and Titus 2009). The salamanders most often migrate at night, during a rain. Once in a breeding pond, they seem to migrate to clear areas to search for mates (Madison 1998) and later attach their egg masses to twigs, stems, and other vegetation more than 1 foot below the surface of breeding ponds (Gibbs et al. 2007). In New Jersey, the salamanders regularly breed during the January thaw. They lay their eggs in the deepest areas of ponds in order to avoid freezing, and the breeding period can last up to 60 days because cold spells inhibit the mating activity of adults (Hassinger et al. 1970). Adults occupy shallow areas near pond edges before they emerge and enter upland burrows again (Madison 1998). Eggs hatch in 3-6 weeks, and larvae grow to a relatively large size (more than 3 in. [7.6 cm]) before they metamorphose late in the summer (Gibbs et al. 2007). In New York, metamorphs usually emerge from ponds between late June and early September during rainy weather, with most emerging in July. It is unknown whether they disperse to new ponds or stay near their natal ponds until they have reached maturity (Titus 2007). They do not return to ponds to breed until they become mature at approximately two years of age (Petranka 1998).

Diet [-]
Adults eat mostly earthworms and arthropods, but they will also eat any small animal they can capture and swallow such as frogs and other salamanders. Larvae initially eat small crustaceans and insects. As they grow, they eat larger insects, aquatic invertebrates, frog tadpoles, and the larvae of other salamanders (Bishop 1941; Gibbs et al. 2007).
Tiger Salamander Images
click to enlarge
The Best Time to See
Adult tiger salamanders spend most of their lives underground. There is an increased chance of observing adults at night during the breeding season, which, in New York, can begin as soon as late November (Madison and Titus 2009), sometimes begins during the January thaw, but usually occurs in February and March, especially during periods of rain. Eggs hatch in approximately 4 weeks. Larvae can be found in ponds until late July or early August when they emerge from ponds and begin their fossorial existence (NYSDEC 2010a).
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Active Reproducing
The time of year you would expect to find Tiger Salamander active (blue shading) and reproducing (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)
    Marbled salamanders have white or gray crossbands running from head to tail on a black body, while tiger salamanders are marked with yellow to olive blotches and have a yellow chin.
  • Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
    Spotted salamanders often have two parallel rows of distinctive yellow to orange (in New York, usually yellow) spots running down the dorsum, while tiger salamanders are irregularly marked with yellow to olive blotches and have a yellow chin.