The Eastern Red-backed Salamander is the most abundant terrestrial vertebrate in New England. Unlike many salamanders, it is terrestrial year-round – living, mating, laying eggs, feeding, and hibernating.
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders can occur in two color phases, lead-back and red-back. The lead-back phase salamanders are a consistent gray to black color while the red-back phase is characterized by an orange to red stripe down the length of their body and tail. In both phases, they are distinguishable by their mottled white and black undersides and five toes on their hind feet.
Due to its lack of lungs, this slender salamander must live in damp or moist habitats in order to breath. It is active into late fall, inhabiting rotting logs or living under moist leaf litter, bark, stones, etc. When cold weather really sets in, it will hibernate down to 15 inches in the soil, or in deep leaf litter or rock crevices. (Congratulations to Helen L., the first NC reader to correctly identify the latest Mystery Photo as an Eastern Red-backed Salamander!)
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Vermonters were witness to a record-breaking (early) amphibian migration in the Champlain Valley last week on March 1st, when night temperatures were in the low 50’s. Not only did it occur a week earlier than any other previous major migration, but records show that migration for the earliest amphibians in Vermont is now approximately two to three weeks earlier than it has been during the last decade. (as reported by Jim Andrews, www.VtHerpAtlas.org).
Spotted Salamanders, Four-toed Salamanders, Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Jefferson Salamanders, Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs and even an American Toad were on the move. According to Andrews, “this is a concern if the weather turns really cold and the ground and ponds refreeze. If that happens, many of the early migrants (that are not freeze tolerant) could freeze and die. If the weather stays relatively mild, with only short cold snaps, they should be fine.” Weather since these sightings has been unseasonably cold, and one can only hope they survived. (Photo: Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum)
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders reside in the leaf litter throughout the Northeast during the summer months. Here they scent-mark their territories on the forest floor with pheromones and fecal matter in order to convey information concerning their body size and gender to other Red-backed Salamanders. If the temperature soars or the humidity drops, these salamanders do just what they do in the fall – seek deeper, moister protected areas such as beneath stones, under and within rotting logs and stumps, or underground in animal burrows.
Whereas they migrate downwards in summer to avoid the heat and dry air that would impair their ability to breathe through their skin, these salamanders are avoiding the approaching cold when they migrate downwards in the fall. Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant, and thus must avoid freezing temperatures. Once ensconced in a freeze-free hibernaculum, they usually remain there until snowmelt.