Can Tiger Salamanders Breathe Underwater?

Often mistaken for a type of lizard due to their shape and size, tiger salamanders are, in fact, amphibians. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that amphibians are born in the water, where they spend the larval and juvenile stages of their lives. They then metamorphose and become terrestrial creatures. As a result, people wonder if tiger salamanders can breathe underwater (adults in particular).

Here’s what I can tell you:

Tiger salamanders can breathe underwater. However, larvae and juveniles are much more effective underwater breathers than adults. Indeed, larvae and juvenile tiger salamanders have external gills, whilst metamorphosed adults don’t. Gills are respiratory organs that many aquatic creatures use to breathe by extracting oxygen from water and excreting carbon dioxide. Tiger salamanders lose their gills during metamorphosis and must breathe through their underwater skin. This type of breathing is called cutaneous respiration.

In the article below, I’ll cover the topic in more detail.

Table of Contents

Can Tiger Salamanders Breathe Underwater Featured Image

How Do Tiger Salamanders Breathe?

Tiger salamanders use three different mechanisms to breathe. They also breathe differently depending on what stage of their life cycle they’re in. So, this may seem complicated for us humans who breathe exclusively through our lungs from the moment we are born into the world until the moment we die.

Let’s take a look at the different breathing mechanisms tiger salamanders use and when they use them.

The 3 Breathing Mechanisms Used by Tiger Salamanders


Gills are respiratory organs that many aquatic creatures use to breathe by extracting oxygen from water and excreting carbon dioxide.

In tiger salamanders, in particular, and salamanders, in general, gills are external. Tiger salamanders have two external gills, which branch out on either side of their head when they’re in their larval and juvenile stages. This is also why juvenile tiger salamanders are sometimes mistaken for axolotls.


As is the case with amphibians in general, tiger salamanders can breathe through their skin. This type of breathing is called cutaneous respiration.

Indeed, the skin of a tiger salamander is very thin and porous and is irrigated by a vast network of very fine blood vessels called capillaries. These characteristics facilitate the exchange of gases through the skin, where carbon dioxide is dissolved into the water, and oxygen is extracted from it. The oxygen is dissolved into the bloodstream via the network of capillaries and circulated around the body.

Cutaneous breathing is predominantly used when the animal is underwater. However, tiger salamanders can also breathe through their skin when on land – although not very effectively – if their skin is moist and humidity levels in the air are high.


Lungs are sac-like, spongy, air-filled organs used to breathe air. Mature tiger salamanders develop lungs. The tiger salamander’s lungs are located inside its thoracic cage, where they’re protected from damage by its ribs.

Just as is the case with gill breathing or cutaneous respiration, the function of the lungs is to absorb oxygen into the blood and excrete carbon dioxide into the environment.

Breathing Mechanisms & Life Cycle

Tiger salamanders breathe differently depending on what stage of their life cycle they are in. Let’s take a look at each stage and the mechanisms used below.

Larval Stage

Tiger salamanders hatch from eggs laid in the water, generally in vernal pools, ponds, or slow-moving streams. When they hatch, they are exclusively aquatic creatures. They spend their entire larval stage underwater.

To breathe, tiger salamander larvae mainly use their gills.

Juvenile Stage

As tiger salamander larvae develop into juveniles, they grow front and rear limbs. They also begin to use their skin as a breathing mechanism, although it is thought that they continue to use their gills as the main method of gas exchange.

Adult Stage

To become mature adults, juvenile tiger salamanders must undergo metamorphosis. During this transformation process, the tiger salamander will begin to lose its external gills and develop its lungs. Once metamorphosis is complete, the mature adult tiger salamander will leave the water and become a land-dwelling creature. At this stage in their life cycle, they will begin to use their lungs to breathe air.

Occasionally, when they’re in a very moist environment or return to the water to reproduce, they will also use their skin for cutaneous respiration. However, this mechanism is less effective at supplying tiger salamanders with all the oxygen that their adult-sized bodies require.

It can be thought of as a supplementary mechanism.

How Long Can Tiger Salamanders Stay Underwater?

How long tiger salamanders can stay underwater depends on what stage of their life cycle they’re in.

Larval Stage

Tiger salamander larvae are purely aquatic creatures. Therefore, they can stay underwater permanently.

They use their external gills to breathe and don’t need to surface to extract oxygen from and excrete carbon dioxide into the air.

Juvenile Stage

Juvenile tiger salamanders are purely aquatic creatures, just like larvae. Therefore, they can stay underwater permanently.

They use their external gills to breathe and also their skin.

Adult Stage

Adult tiger salamanders are terrestrial creatures. They spend most of their adult lives on land, only returning to the water to reproduce.

Because they no longer have gills, adults must breathe through their skin when underwater. As their skin is not their primary breathing mechanism (their lungs are), it is not very effective at supplying their body with enough oxygen to be fully active and alert for long periods of time.

Therefore, adult tiger salamanders don’t stay underwater for very long. How long they can stay underwater will depend on how much oxygen they are able to extract from the water, and how much carbon dioxide they can excrete into it. Let’s quickly examine the factors that can influence that process.

Type of Water Body

Oxygen levels in the water can vary greatly depending on the type of water body the tiger salamander is in.

Indeed, the fast-moving waters of waterfalls, streams, or rivers will contain more oxygen than the stagnant waters of vernal ponds, swamps, or woodland ponds. As a result, adult tiger salamanders will find cutaneous breathing easier in moving water vs. stagnant water.

Current Speed

Moreover, the speed at which the water moves around the adult tiger salamander’s body will also have an impact on the speed at which gases are exchanged. The faster the water is moving, the easier it is for tiger salamanders to extract oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide.

This phenomenon is similar to that of a fan blowing air onto somebody’s skin. The faster the fan spins, the more air is blown onto the skin, and the quicker any perspiration will evaporate.

Water Temperature

According to the USGS, cold water can hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water. Therefore, tiger salamanders can stay underwater for longer periods of time in cooler water vs. warmer water.

What is interesting is that tiger salamanders breed from mid-winter to early spring, when water temperatures are colder and the oxygen levels are higher in the vernal pools, ponds, and slow-moving streams where they mate. It is therefore no coincidence that is it at this time of the year that tiger salamanders migrate to these waters to reproduce.

Activity Levels

The amount of oxygen that organisms require to breathe increases with their activity levels. That’s why we breathe heavily when we exercise. It’s no different for tiger salamanders.

Therefore, the amount of time a tiger salamander can breathe through its skin underwater will also depend on how active it is. If it is very active and expends a lot of energy, it will likely need to surface in order to breathe air.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Tiger Salamanders Breathe Above Water?

Tiger salamander larvae cannot breathe above water. However, juveniles can breathe above water, through their skin, for short periods of time. Adults on the other hand have lungs and can breathe above water through their lungs.

Can Tiger Salamanders Drown?

Tiger salamanders live underwater when they are larvae and juveniles. They are able to breathe underwater through their gills (and through their skin as they become juveniles), so do not drown unless the oxygen levels in the water become so low that they can no longer absorb enough oxygen to survive. Adult tiger salamanders are at a higher risk of drowning as they must breathe exclusively through their skin when underwater. Cutaneous breathing is not as effective as breathing through their lungs, and if water conditions are sub-optimal (stagnant, too hot), or the animal becomes trapped or exhausted when hiding or fleeing from a predator, it is at risk of drowning.

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Hello and welcome to Pets From Afar. I'm Glen. My daughter Siri and I are mad about axolotls. I created this website to document our findings and experiences, as we learn more about these amazing amphibians. Follow along and enjoy the fun!

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