How to tell apart male and female spotted salamanders (and other Ambystoma)

Spotted Salamander in Pond

So you are outside on a rainy, cold day in late winter, walking around your favorite vernal pool, and you find an Ambystoma salamander. These are the large North American salamanders that often (but not always!) live on land as adults, but migrate to breeding ponds to mate and lay eggs. Once you’ve got one of these salamanders in your had during the breeding season, how can you tell if it is a male or a female?

In an earlier post, I showed how to tell apart male and female wood frogs during the breeding season based on the shape of the front limbs. That method won’t work for spotted salamanders or other Ambystoma; instead you’ve got to look at the cloaca.

The cloaca is the orifice just past the hindlimbs in salamanders. The cloaca serves two main functions: excretion and reproduction. During the breeding season, the cloaca of male Ambystoma are enlarged, while the cloaca of females remain smaller. If you can pick up your spotted salamander and flip it over, you can easily tell its sex. Unfortunately this approach won’t work if you find an Ambystoma during the summer, because the males do not have enlarge cloaca outside of the breeding season.

Salamander Anatomy Cloaca

Female Spotted Salamander Cloaca

Male Spotted Salamander Cloaca

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6 Responses to How to tell apart male and female spotted salamanders (and other Ambystoma)

  1. bob smith says:

    do tiger salamanders live in Idaho because I found one in my backyard

    • mfbenard says:

      Yes, tiger salamanders do live in Idaho. There are some other species of salamanders in Idaho that look a bit like tiger salamanders. If you email me a picture of the salamander you found (mfbenard @ gmail.com), I can let you know what species it is.

  2. tony says:

    i have a dark brown and orange what is that breed

  3. NS says:

    Got any tips for sexing plethodontid salamanders?

    • mfbenard says:

      I don’t have any good photos showing male vs. female traits for plethodontids. Depending on the species and time of year, traits like mental glands (under the chin) or enlarged nasolabial grooves/cirri can tell the males from the females. Petranka’s “Salamanders of the United States and Canada” would be a good place to start.

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