Red Salamanders

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

March 29, 2012

Some identifications are easy, and some names are remarkable for their simplicity and aptness. Consider the Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber), a salamander most obviously red.

Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)

Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)

Like many salamanders, Red Salamanders are most easily seen when they are on the move. Look for them on warm, rainy spring nights as they move from the streams where they spent the winter to more terrestrial habitats where they will stay until they return to their streams for breeding in the fall. They will overwinter at or near the streams until the first warm rains of the following springs call them to move onto land again.

They prefer forested streams, medium to high gradient, clear and clean. I tend to find them crossing roads on wet spring (late March–early April) evenings.

Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)

Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)

Red salamanders are reported to feed on other salamanders (including the Red-backed Salamander—Plethodon cinereus—our most common terrestrial salamander), as well as the usual suite of insects, worms, spiders, etc. They are, in turn, fed on by snakes, despite the fact that they secrete a toxin that makes them unpleasant (at least to mammals).

Red-spotted Newt (Red Eft)

Red Eft, terrestrial stage Red-spotted Newt (Notopthalmus viridescens)

As they are terrestrial, red, and spotted, it has been posited that Red Salamanders are mimics of the terrestrial larvae of the Red-spotted Newt (Notopthalmus viridescens), which is also red and spotted (hence, the name).[1] If correct, this would be an example of Müllerian mimicry, in which both species share a common trait with a similar effect (in this case, toxic skin secretions).[2]

I have never witnessed the autumn move back to the water for the winter. I will keep an eye out for it this fall.

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  1. In fact, the Pseudotriton means “false newt.” Triton is a genus of newts. Note the difference that a hyphen makes versus a comma: a Red-spotted Newt has spots that are red, a Red salamander is a red, spotted salamander, which means that it is red and has spots–but the spots are not necessarily (or actually) red. []
  2. There are several flavors of mimicry, the most common is probably Batesian, where the mimic looks or acts like another creature that has dangerous or unpleasant traits, but does not, itself, have any dangerous or unpleasant traits (flies that look like bees, but cannot sting). In Wasmannian mimicry, the mimics try to fit in with a crowd that might otherwise kill them—various insects that live inside ant nests by looking and acting like ants, for example). My personal favorite is Emsleyan mimicry (also called Mertensian mimicry) in which a deadly animal looks like something harmless. The idea is that dead things don’t learn, and inasmuch as the beneficial effect of mimicry results from a predator learning from an encounter, mimicking a deadly creature would not provide any long-term benefits. Hence, the mimicry must go in the other direction. The classic example is the deadly Coral Snake, which appears to mimic the harmless Milk Snake. []

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