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An Abbreviated Look at Pennsylvania's Amphibians and Reptiles

 . . . A quick reference to interesting and informative facts about the amphibians and reptiles of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. For more complete information, refer to the text.


Aquatic plants . . . they are important to reptiles and amphibians. They are a source of food, support egg masses and provide a place to hide.

Bale . . . the word refers to a group of turtles.

Banded rattlesnake . . . this nickname refers to the timber rattlesnake, Pennsylvania's largest poisonous snake.

Basking . . this habit helps rid the body of diseases and aids the development of eggs and the proper functioning of organs.

Black snake . . . this common name is often applied to the black racer and black rat snakes.

Calls . . frogs and toads have true vocal chords and together produce a great variety of calls used to attract a mate or defend territory. Salamanders sometimes squeal, but do not actually produce a call.

Chain snake . . . it's simply a nickname for the eastern kingsnake.

Chewing food . . . not where snakes are concerned, at least. Their teeth are not designed for chewing and thus they must swallow their prey whole.

Claws . . . lizards and turtles have them; salamanders and frogs and toads do not.

Cold-blooded animals . . . like fish, the body temperature of amphibians and reptiles approximates that of their environment. Temperature is not regulated internally.

Colors and patterns . . . they are helpful, but not always an accurate or complete method to identify the various species.

Cottonmouth . . . this water moccasin does not live in Pennsylvania. It is not related to our northern water snake.

Death at sunset . . . muscle contractions could cause a snake to "move" for several hours after death, but it does not "wait until sunset" to die.

Detached tail . . . many lizards can lose theirs to an attacker and grow a new one.

Devonian Period . . . it goes 300 million years back in time, when the first amphibians appeared on earth.

Dry strike . . . poisonous snakes do not always inject venom when they land a strike on an intended victim.

Eft . . . this is the land-based sub-adult stage of the newt and the second of its three life stages

Eggs . . . amphibians' eggs have no shell, but are protected by a capsule or jelly-like substance; reptile eggs have a shell, usually hard or nearly so.

Eyelids . . . on lizards, they're movable; snakes have eyelids or shields that are clear, but fixed.

Eyes . . . they often are important identifying characteristics and can, among other things, help sort poisonous snakes from non-poisonous snakes and spadefoot toads from true toads.

Facial pit . . . this pit, found between each eye and the nostrils on our poisonous snakes, is sensitive to heat.

Fangs . . . these are actually long, hollow, modified teeth.

Garden snake . . . this term sometimes is used when we actually are referring to the garter snake.

Garden toad . . . it's a common name for the American and Fowler's toads, frequent visitors around homes.

Grass snake . . . this name often is used to refer to our two green snakes.

Hearing . . . some amphibians and reptiles have external ear openings. Snakes, however, "hear" by feeling ground vibrations.

Hoptoad . . . it's a common term attached to toads that "hop," rather than leap, as do the frogs.

Hypnotic trance . . . contrary to belief, snakes do not hypnotize their prey. Their steady gaze is a result of unmovable, transparent eyecaps.

Insects . . . they are a favorite food of many amphibians and reptiles; humans should appreciate that fact.

Jefferson salamander . . . a U.S. president gave his name, through a Pennsylvania college, to this amphibian.

Largest frog . . . in Pennsylvania, at up to six inches, the bullfrog captures the top honors.

Largest lizard . . . in Pennsylvania, the broadhead tops the list at about 12 inches.

Largest salamander . . . the eastern hellbender is the largest in Pennsylvania, reaching up to 20 inches.

Largest snake . . . these honors in Pennsylvania go to the black rat snake at up to 100 inches.

Largest toad . . . the American toad could attain 3 1/2 inches.

Largest turtle . . . the softshell turtles may measure up to 17 inches. Although shorter on average, snapping turtles probably weigh more.

Larvae . . . depending on species, they could take a few days to years to transform into the adult stage.

Leopard frog . . . this amphibian can reside in brackish water as well as fresh water.

Loggerhead . . . this term is sometimes applied locally to the snapping turtle.

Loss of fangs . . . that's no problem. A new pair is usually ready to drop into place.

Lungless salamanders . . . it's an accurate description for they have no lungs, but "breathe" instead through the skin.

Milk snake . . . it does not milk cows, as some believe, but it does search for mice around barns, a favorite hangout.

Missing teeth . . . turtles lost them sometime during their evolution, to be replaced by a hard, horny beak.

Moles . . . they gave their name to the mole salamander family, which, like this mammal, spends most of its life underground.

Mole salamanders . . . they do not have the nasolabial groove extending from the lip to the nostril; the lungless salamanders do.

Mudpuppy . . . it remains a larva and will always have gills.

Newt . . . this is the aquatic adult and final stage of three life stages; the larva and terrestrial eft precede it.

Northern water snake . . . it is not a water moccasin, nor is it poisonous.

Pit vipers . . . they include the poisonous snakes, so named for the heat-sensitive facial pit.

Plastron . . . the turtle's lower shell is equipped on some species with a hinge to swing open or shut.

Rain . . . sufficient rainfall is often crucial. A lack of it may cause the eggs of some species of amphibians to lay dormant until the next spring.

Rattles . . . the number of segments does not reveal the age of the rattlesnake. A new segment is added with each shedding of skin, perhaps several times a year.

Scales . . . reptiles—turtles, lizards, snakes—have them; amphibians—salamanders, frogs, toads—do not.

Scent . . . this trait is often used by amphibians and reptiles to seek out a mate.

Shedding skin . . . in order to grow, snakes and frogs must molt.

Skin . . . it is generally smooth, soft and moist on amphibians. On reptiles, it is dry and usually covered with scales.

Skinks . . . they are actually lizards with skin that is smooth and shiny.

Slimy salamander . . . it perhaps isn't slimy, but extremely sticky instead. On this species, skin glands secrete a gluey substance.

Slimy snakes . . . snakes are not slimy, not even when wet.

Smallest frog . . . barely an inch long, the northern cricket frog is our smallest.

Smallest lizard . . . the northern fence lizard, at four to 7 1/4 inches, wins these honors.

Smallest salamander . . . as an adult, the four-toed could be as short as two inches.

Smallest snake . . . it's a tie. The smooth earth snake and the worm snake, at seven to 10 inches, take the prize in Pennsylvania.

Smallest toad . . . all of our toads could measure as little as two inches as adults.

Smallest turtle . . . the bog and eastern mud come in at three inches on occasion as adults.

Snake stings . . . snakes cannot sting, including with their tails as some people suppose.

Softshell turtles . . . the shells of these turtles are just that—soft. They're covered with leathery skin rather than bony plates.

Spadefoot toad . . . it carries its own shovel. The spade on the hind feet is a useful and often-used digging tool.

Spreading adder . . . this, along with puff adder and hissing adder, is a name given to the hognose snake due to its habit of spreading its neck into a hood-like shape. But it's all a ploy used by this harmless snake to scare off predators or intruders.

Springs . . . their clean, cool waters are a favorite, and sometimes extremely important, area for many amphibians and reptiles.

Stinkpot turtle . . . its name bespeaks the foul odor produced from musk glands.

Striking position . . . snakes do not have to be coiled. They can strike if lying in an S-shape.

Swamp rattler . . . the massasauga rattlesnake, its more common name, is an endangered species in Pennsylvania. It's this state's smallest poisonous snake.

Tadpoles . . . this general term is given to the larvae of frogs and toads, but not of salamanders.

Tails . . . they assist many animals, but would probably hamper frogs and toads in moving about with leaps and jumps.

Terrapin . . . these usually are the aquatic, hard-shelled turtles.

Toe pads . . . these sticky discs are found under the toes of treefrogs and aid their moving and perching on trees and shrubs.

Tongues . . . they're used effectively by some amphibians to catch insects. On snakes, the tongue cannot penetrate the skin of prey, but is used to sample air particles.

Tortoise . . . this general term usually refers to large land-dwelling turtles.

Toxic substances . . . many amphibians secrete a substance from skin glands that can be irritating even to humans. Mucous membranes are especially vulnerable.

Tree cavities . . . as they do for several mammals and birds, cavities provide protection and home to the broadhead skink and numerous snakes. Allow a few snags to stand on your woodlot.

Treefrogs . . in spite of their common family name, many species seldom climb trees, spending most of their time on the ground. The spring peeper and gray treefrog are the exceptions.

Turtles . . . they are the oldest living reptiles; they go back some 200 million years.

Upland moccasin . . . it's better known in Pennsylvania as the northern copperhead. It's related to the water moccasin, which does not live in Pennsylvania.

Vertebrae . . . they number less than 10 in frogs to several hundred in some snakes.

Vocal sac . . . one or two are found on most frogs and toads, and when inflated become a source of air in helping produce a call.

Warning rattle . . . don't count on it. Rattlesnakes have been known to strike without warning.

Warts . . . although they are common on toads, they cannot be spread to humans.

Wehrle's salamander . . . it's named for R. W. Wehrle, a resident of Indiana, Pennsylvania, who played a key role in describing this species.

Wood frog . . . this frog can adapt to cold; it is found north of the Arctic Circle.

World continents . . . all except Antarctica, have some population of snakes.

Figure VII-1