“How does a salamander catch a dragonfly?”

Another question from more years ago than I wish to count…

(Photo: MassAudubon)

(Photo: MassAudubon)

The children’s nature classes at Moose Hill Wildlife Nature Sanctuary are one of the things I miss most about life in Boston. Each hour and a half class featured a story, a craft, and a nature hike. This last bit was my daughter’s favorite part.

There were all kinds of creatures back in those woods. Many of the birds, bugs, rabbits, and chipmunks my daughter had seen elsewhere, but Moose Hill also had magical creatures like salamanders that The (then) Four-Year-Old hadn’t seen anywhere else.

“Mommyo,” The (then) Four-Year-Old enthused one fall afternoon, “I didn’t even know salamanders existed!”

Naturally, she wanted to know all about them. Immediately. So we trooped off to the library to check out a few books. There, The (then) Four-Year-Old learned that salamanders are amphibians, not lizards, and can regrow lost tails, arms, and legs in just a few days.

Some salamanders live on land, while others live in the water. When The (then) Four-Year-Old read that land-based salamander eat dragonflies (among other things), her mind had a question:

“Mommyo, how do salamanders catch dragonflies?”

Appparently, the salamander my daughter saw at Moose Hill didn’t look particularly fast. Or tall. Or like it could fly. The (then) Four-Year-Old, who had found hunting dragonflies to be an exercise in frustration even with a butterfly net, naturally wanted to know how this unlikely looking predator did it without any net at all.

When it comes to hunting dragonflies, land-based salamanders have certain advantages that Four-Year-Olds with butterfly nets lack, like long sticky tongues and stealthiness. Although they look slow and unthreatening, salamanders are actually excellent hunters. They creep up on their prey until they are within striking distance, then lunge forward and snatch the prey with the sticky pad on the tip of their extremely long tongue. (Some salamander species boast tongues that are 80% of their body length.)

Salamanders can shoot out their tongues with tremendous force, at great speeds (up to 4.6 meters per second), and with incredibly good aim. The entire snatch and grab takes only 20 milliseconds.

In this image of a salamander catching a fly from the journal Nature, the salamander's tongue appears almost impossibly long. Yet, the authors assure me, it's not even fully extended. (Photo:

In this image of an H. supramontis salamander catching a fly from the September 4, 1997 issue of Nature, the salamander’s tongue appears almost impossibly long. Yet, the authors assure me, it’s not even fully extended. (Photo: Salamander with a ballistic tongue by Stephan M. Deban, David B. Wake, and Gerhard Roth)

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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