Ancestors and myths

Salamandra-like urodelans are already known from the Upper Paleocene and the Lower Eocene of France and Belgium. The Upper Eocene and Oligocene Megalotriton filholi (Zittel 1890) may be the possible ancestor of the Oligocene and Miocene Salamandra sansaniensis (Laret 1851). They must have been common throughout Central Europe since their fossil remains are known from many sites of France, Germany, Czech, Slovakia and Switzerland. No fossil “true” salamanders are recorded from Spain prior to the Lower Miocene period, which explains well the absence of “true” salamanders on Sardinia. 14-15 million years ago, a newly created mountain chain stretched from the Alps through the Dinarides and the Hellenides to Anatolia. Ancestors of the present species could have settled large parts of Europe, using this mountain bridge between Europe and Asia, where the genus Salamandra probably originated from (Veith et al. 1998).


Megalotriton filholi from here

The “myth” Fire Salamander
The Fire Salamander has been known by humans for a long time because of its eye-catching appearance. Pre-modern authors often ascribed fantastic qualities to salamanders. A large body of legend, mythology and symbolism has developed around the Fire salamander over the centuries. In one of the earliest surviving descriptions of a salamander, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) noted that the salamander is “an animal like a lizard in shape and with a body starred all over; it never comes out except during heavy showers anddisappears the moment the weather becomes clear.” Pliny even made the important distinction between salamanders and lizards. Pliny recounts several other traits which are less credible, such as the ability to extinguish fire with the frigidity of the bodies of salamanders, a quality which is also reported by Aristotle (Bostock & Riley (eds.) 1855). Pliny also notes medical and poisonous properties, although the extent of these properties is greatly exaggerated, with a single salamander being regarded as so toxic that by twining around a tree it could poison the fruit and so kill any who ate them. By falling into a well, a salamander could slay all who drank from it (White 1992). In Medieval European bestiaries, fanciful depictions of salamanders include a “satyr-like creature in a circular wooden tub” (eighth century), a “worm penetrating flames” (twelfth century), a “winged dog” (thirteenth century) and a “small bird in flames” (thirteenth century) (McCulloch 1962). The traits relating to fire have stood out most prominently in salamander lore. This connection probably originates from a behavior common to many salamanders, hibernating in and under rotting logs. When the wood was brought indoors and put on the fire, the salamanders “mysteriously” appeared from the flames. According to some writers, the milky substance that a salamander excludes when frightened and which makes its skin very moist gave rise to the idea that the salamander could withstand any heat ant even put out fires (Bulfinch 1913). Seeing that, the name “Fire Salamander” can be traced back to these events. Leonardo da Vinci wrote the following on the salamander: “This has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin. The salamander, which renews its scaly skin in the fire, – for virtue.” (Richter 1880). Paracelsus suggested that the salamander was the elemental of fire. Marco Polo believed that the “true” salamander was an incombustible substance found in the earth. Because of all that erroneous beliefs and the mystic histories about salamanders, people long believed that salamanders are bad creatures and threw the animals into the fire.



This picture is available here

This portrayal of the Fire Salamander changed only in the middle of the 17th century. In the beginning, even Carl of Linné classified the Fire Salamander incorrectly as “Lacerta salamandra”, with “Lacerta” meaning lizard (Thiesmeier and Günther 1996). In early heraldry, the salamander was depicted as a short-legged dog, surrounded by fire. More recently it is depicted as a lizard or a natural salamander, but still always amidst flames. The salamander became a symbol of enduring faith which triumphs over the fires of passion. It was the badge of Francis I of France, with the motto “I nourish the good and extinguish the bad.” The salamander also became the traditional emblem of the smith (Friar 1987). Even today, people are somewhat skeptical about Fire Salamanders. They still believe that salamanders are very poisonous and therefore dangerous, probably still influenced by the numerous mystic stories that exist about these cryptic animals. This skepticism has to be obliterated, so that these animals can be experienced as the amazing and beautiful creatures they are!

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Bibliography:
Bulfinch, T. 1913. Stories of Gods and Heroes: XXXVI. e. The Salamander. In: Age of Fable: Vols. I & II.

McCulloch, F. 1962. Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. In: University of North Carolina Press: 161-162. Chapel Hill.

Veith, M. & S. Steinfartz & R. Zardoya & A. Seitz & A. Meyer 1998. A molecular phylogeny of „true“ salamanders (family Salamandridae) and the evolution of terrestriality of reproductive modes. In: J. Zool. Syst. Evol. Research: 36, 7-16.

White, T. H. 1992. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation From a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. Stroud: Alan Sutton: 183-184.

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