Salamander 3-fer

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

April 22, 2011

The Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) is by far the most common salamander in our woods. They come in basically two color variants: a red-backed and a lead-backed. As the name implies, a red-back has a red dorsal stripe, usually from the neck to the base of the tail—although in some the red extends farther up the head or down the tail or both. The lead-back is a dark blackish version; you can usually see the whitish part of the belly along the sides.

Red-backed Salamander

Red-backed Salamander, red backed variant.

Just a quick word on color accuracy; when I say red here, I actually mean orange. I don’t know why they aren’t called orange-backed salamanders, because the color is far closer to orange than red. I can only suppose they were named before Crayola defined our colors for us.

Red-backed Salamander lead backed variant

Lead-backed variant

I recently achieved something of a trifecta as a salamander hunter. From time to time I read about some lucky fellow flipping rocks and finding both the lead-back and the red-backed variants under the same rock. Well, as of this week, I am such a lucky fellow. After all the heavy rains I thought it might be fruitful to go flipping rocks in the Tuscarora State Forest. As almost always in wet spring weather, I found a lot of Red-backed Salamanders. And under a very large chunk of pinkish Tuscarora Sandstone, I found both variants and a third that was extremely covered in red, but not completely so.

Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) red backed variant with large amount of red.

Note how "red" extends onto head and down tail

There is, in fact, an erythristic variant that is almost entirely red on the dorsal surface, but as far as I know, it has only been found in Potter County in Pennsylvania. The theory seems to be that this red form mimics the highly distasteful red eft stage of the Red-spotted Newt. Red-backed Salamanders themselves are apparently distasteful to mammals. They also have the ability (autotomy) to shed their tails and grow them back.

Red-backed Salamander showing tail re-growth

Note tail regrowth (little gray nub)

Red-backed Salamanders are extremely common. According to a study in Michigan, there was an estimated one salamander per square meter of forest. A study at the famous Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest found that they made up 93.5% of the salamander biomass in the forest; the biomass of Red-backed Salamanders was more than the biomass of non-predatory birds and was equal to the total biomass of the mice and shrews in the forest. That’s a lot of biomass, and they are very efficient at turning springtails, worms, small flies, etc. into food (about 60% efficient), which makes them extremely important in the forest food chain.

If you’re going to try and show kids salamanders, you can’t do much better than flipping rocks for Red-backs. First off, they’re home bodies. A study in Northern Michigan found that they have a home range of less than half a meter (.43m) and that they have a strong tendency to home (90% returned when displaced up to 30 m). So, if you scout ahead of time, there is a good possibility that they will be under the same rock when you bring back the kids. Second, woodland salamanders sit still for a bit once you uncover them—this tendency has actually been studied: the “mean duration of immobility of disturbed salamanders is 39.4 seconds.”1

Finally, if you do flip rocks or roll logs looking for salamanders, put everything back—carefully. It’s only polite.

1 Dodd, C.K., Jr. 1989. Duration of immobility in salamanders, genus Plethodon (Caudata: Plethodontidae). Herpetologica 45:467–473.

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One Response

  1. rose said:

    Love flipping for salamaners. As long as roaches aren’t there. yuck.

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