A truly bizarre salamander

A new paper in Current Herpetology by Nishikawa et al.  describes a very bizarre salamander, just described and given the name of Tylotriton ziegleri. (It’s a “newt”, actually, which is simply an aquatic salamander in the family Salamandridae. Not all salamanders are newts. Newts in this group are known as “crocodile newts” for obvious reasons.)

Described from 18 males and 1 female collected in North Vietnam, T. ziegleri was recognized as a distinct species both on molecular (mitochondrial DNA) and morphological differences from other species in the group.  The intriguing thing about it is its appearance: totally bizarre, far more like a reptile than an amphibian.

Not only that, but it’s all black except for the tips of its toes and a thin stripe on the underside of its tail, which are orange:

Ziegler's crocodile newt (Tylototriton ziegleri). Photo courtesy of Tao Thien Nguyen.

Ziegler’s crocodile newt (Tylototriton ziegleri). Photo courtesy of Tao Thien Nguyen.

Damn, that’s a cool beast!

At first I thought the orange toes and tail stripe might be due to sexual selection by females. In that case only the males should show the trait, but no sexual dimorphism is mentioned in the paper. If the coloration is due to direct selection, then, it’s probably for other reasons. The salamander might, for instance, be “aposematic”: having warning coloration because it’s toxic.  The authors don’t speculate on this possibility, but many aposematic animals are black and orange (bees and wasps, for instance).

The male holotype (VNMN 3390) of Tylototriton ziegleri; dorsal (left) and ventral (right) views.Scale bar=20 mm.

The male holotype (VNMN 3390) of Tylototriton ziegleri; dorsal (left) and ventral (right) views.
Scale bar=20 mm.

Here’s a closeup of its head:

Detail of adult Ziegler's crocodile newt. Photo courtesy of Tao Thien Nguyen.

Detail of adult Ziegler’s crocodile newt. Photo courtesy of Tao Thien Nguyen.

There’s a news item about this species on Mongabay.com, which describes it as threatened:

Ziegler’s crocodile newt is currently only known from only a small habitat of montane forest and wetlands.

“Currently, habitat loss and degradation, especially around the breeding ponds, is a major threat to the populations of the new species,” the researchers write in the paper. “Legal protection of their habitats and regulation of excessive commercial collection are important measures for conservation of this species.”

Crocodile newts are popular in the illegal pet trade and are often over-collected from the wild. There are now ten known species, eight of which have been evaluated by the IUCN Red List. Of these eight, three are threatened with extinction, four are listed as Near Threatened, and only one is Least Concern.

h/t: Steve


Nishikawa, K.,  M. Matsui, and T. T. Nguyen. 2013. A New Species of Tylototriton from Northern Vietnam (Amphibia: Urodela: Salamandridae). Current Herpetology 32(1): 34–49, February 2013.


  1. Alice Wonder
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    That’s awesome! I had heard about this newt but had not seen any photos yet. Thanks for the photos.

  2. Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    …but…did it get better?


    • js
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Damn, beat me to it.
      I just finished reading Michael Palin’s novel called The truth.
      Not a bad read.

  3. coozoe
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Once again, humans responsible for yet another species loss.

  4. Les Kaufman
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Re the orange under the tail, crocodile newts (I think we’re up to about a dozen species now) vary most conspicuously in the amount and distribution of orange, this under-the-tail bit being a special attribute of the new species. So the real question may more be how come Halloween colors are so popular with newts generally, and crocodile newts in particular, than why this one taxon is hiding its chromatic heart attack under its tail instead of flaunting it like the others (some of which look like they’re wearing a dayglo orange skeleton costume).

    I like aposematic, personally….

  5. Bob Scott Placier
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Salamandridae characteristically have toxic skin secretions, so the aposomatic notion is almost certainly correct. Many of them exhibit a defensive warning posture, the “unken response”, in which they arch backwards to display their orange hued underparts. The only species of the family in my area (SE Ohio) is the Red-spotted Newt (Notopthalmus viridescens), which has a terrestrial “red eft” stage of its life cycle. Virtually nothing will eat them. And the adults are our only salamander that can live in waters with fish.

    • Marcoli
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I was also wondering if they display their colors when disturbed. They could hide it on their underside, going with camoflague, then display their warning when necessary.
      Maybe their skin bumps are swellings of glands that produce lots of toxic slime.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      I agree that the coloration is aposomatic and likely to be displayed in the ‘unken’ response. Adult red-spotted newt adults
      have toxic secretions. I have seen trout grab these newts and promptly spit them out.

    • microraptor
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know. Compared to other toxic amphibians, like the red-spotted newt or the rough-skinned newt that’s native to my neck of the woods, this species has extremely subtle levels of coloration. With such subtle warning colors, it’s much more likely that a potential predator will end up missing the signs and attacking anyway, and that makes me wonder if the colors aren’t used for some other purpose.

  6. BilBy
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    If they feed in murky water on little fish or frogs (not sure how big they are) then maybe prey luring by twitching toes is a function. Terrestrial toads do it.

  7. Filipe
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    About 12 cm long, there’s a scale bar in the picture of the holotype.

  8. Mary Canada
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Very cool looking little creature.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! That was fascinating newts to me. [/ducks under the water surface]

    • still learning
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      You are so clever with puns! Love reading your comments. Thanks!

  10. Wayne Van Devender
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree that T. ziegleri is a cool beast; but it resembles the other species in the genus a great deal. It is not so bizarre in the part of the world where its genus lives.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:08 am | Permalink

      Presumably, at least part of the explanation for this species being black & orange is that it is in a clade of black & orange critters.

  11. Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what Gussie Fink-Nottle would make of this.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:28 am | Permalink


      • emydoidea
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        Never! He liked newts better than humans. A fair number of people have died eating Taricha species (though admittedly raw).

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          He may not have deliberately made soup out of them … but given the number of “situations” he’d get himself into …
          (OK, I’ll admit that I may be conflating one poly-hyphenated buffoon with several other interchangeable Drones.)
          I shall resist the “Red Ken” jokes.

  12. Max
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Holy crap it’s a baby Night Fury! Kill it! Kill it! http://goo.gl/4VN1X

    • emydoidea
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      Pretty obvious that salamanders were the primary inspiration for the Night Fury, what with the external gills.

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