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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Western Tiger Salamander - Ambystoma mavortium
Other Names:  Tiger Salamander, Barred Tiger Salamander, Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S4

Agency Status


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General Description
Adults vary in color pattern, but background color is usually dark, with lighter blotches of yellow, tan, or green. Adults are large and heavy-bodied with a body length of 3 to 6 inches. Eggs and larvae: eggs are typically laid in small clusters of 5 to 120, but may be laid singly. Larvae are typically pale green or brown. They have external gills and are relatively large and heavy-bodied (0.75 to 4 inches). Coloration geographically variable to an extreme, often mottled, blotched, or spotted; adults are stocky, with 11 to 14 (usually 12 to 13) costal grooves, a broad head, small eyes, and tubercles on the soles of the feet; pond-type larva (but lacks balancers), with three large pairs of gills, vomerine teeth in U-shaped pattern, and dorsal fin extending to region of axilla; adults usually are about 15 to 22 cm in total length (to about 34 cm) (Stebbins 1954, 1985; Behler and King 1979; Conant and Collins 1991).

Diagnostic Characteristics
The following pertains to metamorphosed adults. Differs from A. macrodactylum in lacking a distinct dorsal stripe or stripelike row of spots. Differs from A. gracile in having distinct dorsal markings and tubercles on the underside of the feet and by lacking parotoid glands and a glandular ridge on the tail. Differs from A. annulatum in lacking a light grayish stripe along the lower side of the body and generally lacking narrow light bands across the body. Differs from A. maculatum and A. opacum in having large light blotches on the sides. Differs from A. talpoideum in having sharply defined spots and usually more than 11 costal grooves (vs. 10 to 11). Differs from all other North American Ambystoma in having tubercles on the soles of the feet. Differs from plethodontid salamanders in lacking a nasolabial groove.

Species Range
Montana Range

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Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 1665

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Has breeding migrations.

Tiger Salamanders in Montana are primarily associated with prairie or agricultural habitats. They breed in ponds, lakes, springs, intermittent streams, and stock ponds, usually those without fish present. Adults go to the breeding ponds soon after snowmelt; after breeding, adults may remain in the ponds or move to upland areas and live in burrows. Eggs hatch in 2 to 5 weeks and metamorphosis takes 2 to 24 months. In some locations larval salamanders never transform, but rather become sexually mature and breed while retaining external gills (referred to as neotony). These salamanders are often called "axolotls" or "water dogs". Are benthic in ponds but may enter upper water column at night. At high elevation, tend to select warmest water in ponds (rarely above 25 C). Shallows during day, deep water at night.
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Larvae; Western Colorado; mostly arthropods, taken proportional to abundance. Adults: Southern Manitoba percent by weight: Cammarus 87, coleoptera 7, hirudinea 8.

Late metamorphosis probably caused by temperature rather than food abundance. Paedomorphic populations tend to occur at higher elevations. High elevation populations use behavioral thermoregulation (Heath 1975).

Reproductive Characteristics
Breeds in May on prairie; June to mid-August at 7780 feet in southwestern Montana. Eggs hatch in approximately 15 days, June to August. Metamorphose in August of first year on prairie; not until year 2 to 3 at high elevation.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Behler, J.L. and F.W. King. 1979. The Audubon Society field guide to North American reptiles and amphibians. Alfred E. Knpf, Inc., New York.
    • Conant, R. and J.T. Collins. 1991. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians of eastern and central North America. Third edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, MA. 450 pp.
    • Heath, A.G. 1975. Behavioral thermoregulation in high altitude tiger salamanders, Ambystoma tigrinum. Herpetologica 31(1): 84-93.
    • Stebbins, R.C. 1954. Amphibians and reptiles of western North America. McGraw-Hill, New York. Xxii + 528 pp.
    • Stebbins, R.C. 1985. A field guide to western reptiles and amphibians. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 336 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
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    • Glass, B.P. 1951. Age at maturity of neotenic Ambystoma tigrinum mavortium Baird. American Midland Naturalist 46: 391-394.
    • Hamilton, W.J. Jr. 1946. Summer habitat of the yellow-barred tiger salamander. Copeia 1946: 51.
    • Knopf, G.N. 1962. Paedogenesis and metamorphic variation in Ambystoma tigrinum mavortium. Southwest Naturalist 7: 75.
    • Norris, D.O. 1989. Seasonal changes in diet of paedogenetic tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum mavortium). Journal of Herpetology 23: 87-89.
    • Webb, R.G. and W.L. Roueche. 1971. Life history aspects of the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum mavortium) in the Chihuahuan desert. Great Basin Naturalist 31(4): 193-212.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks and D.L. Flath. 2004. Amphibians and Reptiles of Montana. Mountain Press Publishing Company: Missoula, MT. 262 pp.
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Citation for data on this website:
Western Tiger Salamander — Ambystoma mavortium.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on May 30, 2016, from