The common name of species within genus Ambystoma is the mole salamander. There are approximately 33 species within this salamander genus. Individuals vary in color and pattern, as some can be brightly colored while others are duller in appearance. Coloration can also be heavily dependent upon age and location. Western tiger salamanders (Ambystoma californiense) can be distinguished by their distinct pattern of black spots/bars. Northwestern salamanders (Ambystoma gracile) can be distinguished based on their distinct paranoid glands and glandular ridge on their tails. Long-toed salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum) have multiple subspecies that can be distinguished by their long toes and either an apparent dorsal stripe or a series of blotches (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

Geographic Range

Mole salamanders have a wide geographical range, though they are all found in the Nearctic region. They range from Alaska to the Gulf Coast, as well as parts of the Mexican Plateau. Four species of Ambystoma are found in the west. California tiger salamanders (A. californiese) can only be found in California, along with some hybrid populations. Western tiger salamanders (Ambystoma mavortium) have a broader range in western North America, Canada, and Mexico. There are some exceptions, including most of the Great Basin as well as the Pacific Coast, Mojave deserts, and Coloradan deserts. Northwestern salamanders (A. gracile) range from California to Canada. Long-toed salamanders (A. macrodactylum) are found more inland than the other salamander species, such as in Santa Cruz, California, and Canada (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). Streamside salamanders (Ambystoma barbouri) are found within a restricted range in Kentucky (Drayer et al., 2020). (Drayer, et al., 2020; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)


Ambystoma species have a diverse habitat range. A. mavortium can be found in water ponds, reservoirs, lakes, and temporary rain pools in deserts, mountains, and forests. A. californiese can be found within grasslands, oak savannas, low-elevation forests, and temporary ponds for breeding. A. gracile can be found in open grasslands, woodlands, and in forests near water. A. macrodactylum can be found in sagebrush and cheatgrass as well as meadows and rocky shores (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • temporary pools
  • coastal

Systematic and Taxonomic History

Ambystoma salamanders are closely related to other salamander species within order Caudata ("Catalogue of Life", 2022; Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). DNA evaluations indicate that Ambystoma has been around for 2.4-5 million years (Spolsky et al., 1992; Bi et al., 2008). (Bi, et al., 2008; "Catalogue of Life", 2022; Spolsky, et al., 1992; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

  • Synonyms
    • Axoloteles
    • Bathysiredon
    • Camarataxis
    • Desmiostoma
    • Heterotriton
    • Lanebatrachus
    • Limnarches
    • Linguaelapsus
    • Ogallalabatrachus
    • Pectoglossa
    • Plagiodon
    • Plioambystoma
    • Rhyacosiredon
    • Salamandroidis
    • Xiphoctonus
    • Xiphonura
  • Synapomorphies
    • Prominent costal grooves
    • Biphasic, some paedomorphic

Physical Description

Ambystoma species typically have rounded, blunt snouts with a broad head and relatively small eyes. They have prominent coastal grooves with a laterally flattened tail, which they use for swimming. Compared to females, males have a longer tail and a bulbous vent. As adults, many individuals have prominent markings such as spots, stripes, and bars. However, some species are plain in color and pattern (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger


Some species within Ambystoma are pseudomorphic, meaning that they have larval characteristics that do not change. The larvae can withstand cold temperatures, although some become neotenic over the course of the winter (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)


Ambystoma salamanders have internal fertilization and are polygynous (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). Most males exhibit sperm competition, as Ambystoma salamanders utilize a unique mating system in which males deposit a sperm package known as a spermatophore, and females collect the spermatophore for use during internal fertilization. The sperm will then make their way to her cloaca to fertilize her eggs (Gopurenko et al., 2007; Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Gopurenko, et al., 2007; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

Breeding is temperature-dependent and weather-dependent (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). Ambystoma species exhibit simple and complex courtship rituals, depending on the species. Those that exhibit complex courtships tend to have a sex ratio favoring males (Gopurenko et al., 2007). (Gopurenko, et al., 2007; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

Mole salamanders do not exhibit any parental care for their young; the females will leave after laying their eggs (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018; Gopurenko et al., 2007). (Gopurenko, et al., 2007; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement


Ambystoma species have a relatively long lifespan, but the exact age range varies by species. Their lifespan in captivity is thought to be about 25 years, however, a mature adult has only been seen to live up to about 16 years (Tyning, 1990). (Tyning, 1990)


Ambystoma exhibit courtship behavior. They are generally solitary creatures with an exception being the mating season (Gopurenko et al., 2007; Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). During non-mating seasons, the salamanders will stay inside logs and other damp, underground places. Ambystoma is thought to be most active during the night (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Gopurenko, et al., 2007; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

Communication and Perception

While there are some heterospecific and homospecific calling cues in this genus, at early stages of the salamanders' life cycles, they are not able to identify or distinguish the calling cues (Gardner et al., 2020). Thus, juveniles' perception is mainly through their olfactory senses (Park et al., 2003). (Gardner, et al., 2020; Park, et al., 2003)

Food Habits

Ambystoma species feed on small invertebrates. A. tigrinum have been seen to prey on Lithobates sylvaticus tadpoles (Wilbur, 1972). Some A. mavortium individuals exhibit cannibalistic behaviors, resulting in a different physical form with wide, U-shaped mouths and enlarged teeth (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018; Wilbur, 1972)


The main predators of Ambystoma are snakes and frogs (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). Ambystoma salamanders have evolved a unique anti-predator defense mechanism, secreting a liquid from their skin that is considered unpalatable/toxic to predators. These salamanders have other defense mechanisms as well, including aposematic coloration, defensive postures, camouflage, and strategic tail-dropping (Thompson & Clark, 2022). However, these salamanders are also seen as predators in their ecosystems since they feed on small invertebrates (Wilbur, 1972). (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018; Thompson and Clark, 2022; Wilbur, 1972)

  • Known Predators
    • Snakes
    • Frogs

Ecosystem Roles

Ambystoma salamanders are an indicator of their ecosystems' health. This is due to the high permeability of their skin, which makes them susceptible to air and water pollution (Davic & Welsh, 2004). These salamanders also have a key role in pest control, as they eat insects and other small invertebrates (Wilbur, 1972). (Davic and Welsh, 2004)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ambystoma do not directly impact the economy. They are, however, ecologically important as an indicator of environmental health and a contributor to pest control (Davic & Welsh, 2004). They are also becoming more popular as pets, specifically the Mexican axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) (Voss et al., 2015). (Davic and Welsh, 2004; Voss, et al., 2015)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Ambystoma on humans.

Conservation Status

Due to habitat disturbance, many Ambystoma species are becoming increasingly threatened. Currently, conservation efforts are very slim due to continued pollution and increased habitat destruction. Thus, these species are considered to be endangered and/or threatened (Davic & Welsh, 2004). California tiger salamanders (A. californiense) are considered one of the endangered species in this genus (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2018). (Davic and Welsh, 2004; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2018)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

The fossil history of this genus has revealed that tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) are comprised of more than 22,000 elements throughout their lifetimes (Sertich et al., 2014). (Sertich, et al., 2014)


Megan Roo (author), Colorado State University, Sydney Collins (editor), Colorado State University.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


mature spermatozoa are stored by females following copulation. Male sperm storage also occurs, as sperm are retained in the male epididymes (in mammals) for a period that can, in some cases, extend over several weeks or more, but here we use the term to refer only to sperm storage by females.


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


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