Mature salamanders generally have a primitive tetrapod body form similar to that of lizards, with slender bodies, long tails, and four limbs. However, like some lizards, many species of salamander have reduced or absent limbs, giving them a more eel-like appearance. Most species have limbs with four toes on the forelimbs, and five on the hind limbs, and lack claws. Salamanders are often brightly colored, either in both sexes throughout the year, or only in the males, especially during the breeding season. However, the species dwelling entirely underground are often white or pink, lacking any skin pigment.
Respiration differs among the different species of salamanders. Species that lack lungs respire through gills. In most cases, these are external gills, visible as tufts on either side of the head, although the amphiumas have internal gills and gill slits. Some salamanders that are terrestrial have lungs that are used in respiration, although these are simple and sac-like, unlike the more complex organs found in mammals. Many species, such as the olm, have both lungs and gills as adults.
Some terrestrial species lack both lungs and gills and perform gas exchange through their skin, a process known as valerian respiration in which the capillary beds are spread throughout the epidermis, and inside the mouth. Even some species with lungs can respire through the skin in this manner.
Salamanders will use tail autotomy to escape predators. Their tail will drop off and wriggle around for a little while, and the salamanders will either run away or stay still enough to not be noticed while the predator is distracted. Salamanders routinely regenerate complex tissues. Within only a few weeks of losing a piece of limb, a salamander perfectly reforms the missing structure.
Salamanders split off from the other amphibians during the Mid to Late Permian, and initially were similar to modern members of the Cryptobranchoidea. Their resemblance to lizards is the result of symplesiomorphy, their common retention of the primitive tetrapod body plan, and they are no more closely related to lizards than they are to mammals – or to birds for that matter. Their nearest relatives are the frogs and toads, within Batrachia.
Salamanders are found on all continents except for Australia, Antarctica, and most of Africa. One-third of the known salamander species are found in North America. The highest concentration of these is found in the Appalachian Mountains region. Species of salamander are numerous and found in most moist or arid habitats in the northern hemisphere. They usually live in or near brooks, creeks, ponds, and other moist locations.