Tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum)

Adult tiger salamander with blotchy dark and light coloration.
Tiger salamanders have a large, stocky, blotched body. 
Category: Amphibians
Family: Ambystomatidae - Mole salamanders
Ecosystems: Shrubsteppe
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate-
High

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

This salamander is considered rare or uncommon in Washington; it is vulnerable due to its small number of populations, a range that is restricted to a region that has been heavily altered, and a lack of information about this species.

A main concern is the drastic decline in stream flows and water body volume in much of Lincoln County and adjacent portions of Grant and Adams counties caused by water withdrawal for agriculture. Larger remaining water bodies may not be suitable habitat because they may contain introduced predatory fish that eat larval salamanders.

Description and Range

Physical description

The tiger salamander is a large, stocky, blotched salamander (to 6.4 inches snout to vent length). It has a rounded blunt snout, small protruding eyes, distinct costal grooves and a laterally compressed tail.

Metamorphosed (transformed) tiger salamanders have green or yellow blotches over the entire surface of the body; there are paired tubercles on the underside of the feet and, a fourth toe that is not exceptionally long.

For identification purposes of eggs and larvae, it is important to note that the long-toed salamander commonly occurs with the tiger salamander. In Klickitat County, the rough-skinned newt also occurs with the tiger salamander.

Underwater close up the upper body of a gilled adult tiger salamander
Gilled adult tiger salamanders have wide gill stalks. W.P. Leonard, Copyright

Larvae

Larvae are pond-type. The gills are large and the filaments are similar in length along the entire stalk. 

The larvae of the tiger salamander and long-toed salamander are similar, however, tiger the hatchlings do not have balancers, and larvae have large gills with similarly sized filaments from top to bottom.

Rough-skinned newt larvae have a small, narrow head with eyes on the lateral edges. There is a dark horizontal stripe through the eye, a line of white dots on the sides, and a pink belly. Larvae of the tiger salamander and long-toed salamander are similar, however, tiger salamander larvae are light colored.

Neotenes

Gilled adults (neotenes) are large (to about 7 inches snout to vent length) with a wide head, small eyes and wide gill stalks.

Eggs

Eggs are small (ovum and gelatinous envelope that is less than 0.4 inches) and laid singly on plant stalks and twigs.

Eggs of the tiger salamander and long-toed salamander are similar, however, tiger salamander eggs are smaller (ovum and gelatinous envelope less than 0.4 inches) with a light colored ovum. Rough-skinned newt eggs are usually hidden within aquatic vegetation.

For more details about tiger salamander, see the Washington Herp Atlas.

Ecology and life history

Occurrence of tiger salamanders is primarily in arid areas that support shrubsteppe vegetation. They tolerate some habitat disturbance and alteration. In the Colville area, they occupy lower elevations in dry habitat types characterized by ponderosa pine/ Douglas fir forest.

Tiger salamanders are habitat generalist, but do require fishless water bodies for breeding. Soil types suitable for burrowing are also important because they are active burrowers. They also use mammal burrows. Metamorphosed forms spend most of their lives in the subterranean environment, and surface activity is nocturnal.

Close up of a hand holding a slender stalk of vegetation with four single tiger salamander eggs attached
Tiger salamander eggs are laid singly on plant stalks or twigs. Lisa Hallock, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources

Breeding takes place primarily in perennial ponds, although seasonal water bodies are also used. Gilled adults occur only in perennial ponds, and their ability to metamorphose is lost with increasing age. Mass mortality events of the larvae can occur if ponds dry.

Tiger salamanders migrate to breeding ponds in the spring, and eggs are laid in mid-March to early April in the Columbia Basin. Whether or not the larval salamanders metamorphose depends on a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Larvae are capable of transforming in the fall of their first year, but in permanent water bodies they delay for two or more years. They can also become sexually mature in the larval form. The gilled adults (or neotenes) can grow to larges sizes than the metamorphosed forms.

Ponds often contain many different size classes of larvae. All forms are gape-limited, opportunistic predators, with invertebrates making up the majority of their diet. Large terrestrial adults may also take small vertebrates.

Tiger salamanders are important predators in ponds and can influence both the vertebrate and invertebrate communities.

They are long-lived (16 to 25 years), although the lifespan of wild individuals is likely shorter.

Geographic range

Tiger salamanders are the most widely distributed of all North American salamanders. In Washington, they occur primarily within the Columbia Plateau Ecoregion. Occurrences in the Okanogan and Eastern Cascades Ecoregions are limited to the steppe and ponderosa pine vegetation zones.

An isolated record for Klickitat County is documented through a specimen collected in the 1930s, but no populations are currently known in this area.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of the tiger salamander in Washington as of 2016. 

Tiger salamander state distribution map: all eastside counties but Klickitat, Benton, Columbia, Garfield, Asotin
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For maps of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

High

Little information exists regarding sensitivity of the tiger salamander to climate change, particularly in Washington. This species likely exhibits sensitivity to warmer and drier conditions that reduce aquatic breeding habitat, lead to desiccation, and/or result in an inability to move. Warmer temperatures and a decrease in total annual precipitation (including snow), as well as an increase in drought, has led to wetland desiccation and significant population declines in Yellowstone National Park. Timing of reproduction may also be affected by increasing temperatures. Tiger salamanders, which are only weakly secondary burrowers, are largely dependent on primary burrowers for overwintering sites, aestivation sites, and temporary refuge sites during their seasonal activities. Hence, if key primary burrowers, such as badger, several ground squirrel taxa (some listed), kangaroo rats, or pocket mice are sensitive to climate change in a manner that they become locally extirpated, their disappearance will likely to negatively impact tiger salamanders.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation and/or reduced snowpack
  • Drought

Regulations

Licenses and permits

Be advised that collection of this species is only permitted under a WDFW Scientific Collection Permit for research and educational activities.

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
A wire-mesh funnel trap with a tiger salamander inside.
A tiger salamander captured in a funnel trap for a WDFW research project.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed 

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Lack of information on status and distribution.
    • Action Needed: Continue research, surveys and monitoring to understand species distribution and status.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss and degradation
    • Threat: Loss and degradation of suitable shrubsteppe habitat that this species relies upon in Washington.
    • Action Needed: Protect native shrubsteppe habitat from further degradation or conversion to agriculture.
  • Agriculture and aquaculture side effects
    • Threat: Drying of water bodies and streams due to withdrawals of irrigation water at a rate faster than aquifers can naturally replenish. Surface water declines in the Lincoln County region since the 1980s are likely related to ground water withdrawals and declines in the Columbia River aquifer.
    • Action Needed: Protect tiger salamander habitat by preventing the drying of wetlands, ponds, lakes and streams. Protect the aquatic habitat that remains.
  • Invasive and other problematic species
    • Threat: Stocking of non-native predatory fish in tiger salamander habitat. Tiger salamanders avoid water bodies with fish.
    • Action Needed: Identify important areas for tiger salamanders and prohibit fish stocking in occupied water bodies.
  • Climate change and severe weather
    • Threat: Drying of water bodies and streams. Loss of aquatic habitat is already an issue in parts of the Columbia Basin (see previous entry). Periods of drought would exacerbate the situation.
    • Action Needed: Maintain robust populations and suitable aquatic habitats across the range. 

See Climate vulnerability section for more information about the threats posed by climate change to this species. 

Resources

References

Corkran, C. C. and C. Thoms. 1996. Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Lone Pine, Redmond, Washington. 175 pp.

Jones, L. L. C, W. P. Leonard and D. H. Olson (Eds.). 2005. Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Audubon Society. 227pp.

Leonard, W. P., H. A. Brown, L. L. C. Jones, K. R. McAllister and R. M. Storm. 1993. Amphibians of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society The Trailside Series, Seattle, Washington. 169 pp.

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie, Jr., and R.M. Storm. 1983. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 332 pp.

Petranka, J. W. 1998. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institutional Press, Washington. 587pp.

Stebbins, R. C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 2nd Edition. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 336 pp.

Personal communications

Liana Aker, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Vancouver, Washington.

WDFW publications

WDFW educational resources

Other resources