Salamander

Lizardlike animal of Europe that is immune to fire; see SEMIMYTHICAL BEASTS.

Scientific name: Pyrosalamandra gustavense, given semiseriously by W. S. Home in 1979.

Etymology: From the Greek salamandra.

Physical description: Small, wingless lizard.

Behavior: Its cold skin is said to put out fire. It throws up a white, toxic substance. Breeds in the hottest part of a fire.

Significant sightings: Artist Benvenuto Cellini saw a small, lizardlike creature dancing in the flames of his father's hearth in Florence, Italy, in 1505.

Biologist W. S. Home saw a salamander-like apparition in a woodstove fire in a cabin at Gus-tavus, Alaska, on January 30, 1978. About 3 inches long with a narrow head and tail, the smoldering red biomorph uncoiled out of the ashes and moved about 15 inches before being consumed by flame. Although it was actually a burning spruce twig, Home was impressed with its resemblance to a living amphibian.

Present status: The legend that Salamanders were immune to fire lingered until the early eighteenth century. Possible explanations:

(1) Members of the well-known amphibian family of Salamanders (Salamandridae) lead an aquatic life as larvae and a terrestrial life as adults. They have a characteristically cylindrical tail. The Fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is found in hilly regions throughout Central and Southern Europe. It derives its name from a skin secretion that is toxic to small animals.

(2) The fire-retarding substance asbestos was long thought to be Salamander wool.

(3) Burning wood can be animated briefly by convection currents and appear remarkably lifelike.

Sources: Aristotle, Historia animalium, trans. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910); Benvenuto Cellini, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, Written by Himself [1562] (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1828), pp. 8-9;

Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica [1672] (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), pp. 214-216, 835-837; W. S. Home, "Seeing a Salamander," INFO Journal, no. 35 (May-June 1979): 12-16; Karl Shuker, Dragons: A Natural History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), pp. 110-113.

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