• Red Backed Salamander David Huth / Wikimedia Foundation

For the Monitor
Published: 11/11/2020 3:09:18 PM

November is not usually the season when we think about amphibians, but the other day as I moved a log near the edge of my garden, I was surprised to see a shiny and slender red-backed salamander nestled in the damp depression left by the log. This little vertebrate can easily be mistaken for a worm due to hardly noticeable legs and a length of only about two to five inches. Its primary feature, as the name implies, is the reddish-orange stripe down its back. However, they can also be found in a gray phase known as the lead-backed salamander. Both color morphs have a mottled gray and white belly.

The red-backs are most commonly found under a log or rock in moist deciduous forests. Cool dark places are best for maintaining moist skin which is essential for their survival. Being lungless, these salamanders exchange gases through their skin, and that doesn’t work if their skin dries out. Handling a red-backed salamander (or any amphibian for that matter), can be detrimental to them because our warm dry skin pulls moisture away from theirs. In addition if we’ve used lotion, hand-sanitizer or insect repellant, those substances can be absorbed through their porous skin and be harmful to the salamander.

As the days and nights get colder these salamanders must go underground, far enough down where their moist skin will not freeze. Their feet are not made for digging, but they are able to shimmy along tree roots, through worm tunnels or follow other underground pathways to get below the frost line, an area that stays above freezing all winter. Several factors determine how far down the frost line will be in various locations and different winters. Places where there are brush or compost piles will be somewhat insulated and provide a desirable place for wintering red-backs. A thick layer of snow, particularly if it arrives early before the ground has frozen to a greater depth, will insulate the ground and also enable them to remain closer to the surface. This can be tricky though. A mid-winter thaw and reduction of snow depth may allow the cold to penetrate, potentially killing any amphibians that did not go deep enough.

Some amphibians, including wood frogs and spring peepers, produce high concentrations of fatty substances and a type of antifreeze in their system to reduce the temperature at which their bodies will freeze. Red-backed salamanders do not possess that ability. Traveling down under is their best adaptation. It is thought that the salamanders return to the same prime wintering locations in successive years, using a keen sense of smell to locate the area.

If they survive the winter, emergence in the spring takes a different path for red-backs. Unlike the large yellow-spotted salamanders which head to vernal pools to lay their eggs, red-backs do not utilize standing water for their nursery. Females deposit grape-like clusters of 3 to 17 tiny eggs in moist leaf litter, or under a damp log. Mothers remain with the eggs, often coiled around them to offer protection and reduce dehydration, for about 60 days.

When the young hatch, they look like miniature salamanders. There is no intermediate larval stage as with the aquatic-based salamanders. The young remain with the mother for one to three weeks before dispersing. This is extremely unusual for amphibians. In most species eggs are laid and abandoned to fend for themselves. The added maternal protection of the red-backs increases the chance of survival from egg to juvenile, and this is the main reason why the number of eggs they lay is dramatically less than with other amphibians.

Red-backs have another unusual adaptation. When a predator such as a bird, frog or snake attacks, they are able to break off their tail. The tail continues to wiggle, confusing the predator, while the salamander escapes. A new tail, albeit a somewhat duller one, will eventually grow back

Even with all of these great strategies for survival, red-backs, can benefit from our stewardship. During fall cleanup around your yard, keep an area more natural. Leaves and brush will provide important protection and habitat for creatures such as red-backed salamanders and other smal l wild neighbors.

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